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Keeping our Cool – 1 Protecting ourselves from extreme heat


Cooling off Russian style during the heatwave of 2010. That heatwave believed to be the worst in its history, killed an estimated 55,736 people

With a record breaking heatwave expected to run right across Australia from Broome in the North West to South Eastern Australia this weekend, I had better post this about protecting yourself and your family now. After that we’ll talk about some of the longer term measures which various countries, communities and workplaces are taking, given that such heat waves are becoming increasingly common.

Make no mistake about it, heat kills. In fact, in Australia and the USA, heat kills more people than any other weather related phenomenon – more than floods, more than hurricanes and cyclones, and that’s not counting those people with underlying conditions such as heart disease, whose deaths are not necessarily attributed to extreme heat, but in which higher temperatures may well have played a role.  The World Health Organisation estimates that between 1998 and 2017, 166,000 people died due to heatwaves. During the 2020 heatwave, the UK alone is estimated to have had 2500 heat related deaths, while the rest of Europe had around 70,000. According to the CDC, the USA has had an average of 738 additional deaths per year due to heat related events between 2014 and 2018 and that there have been around 10,000 heat related deaths between 1999 and 2016, making it a major new public health threat especially as heatwaves become more frequent and more intense. The last Northern summer was the hottest on record but things are like to get worse.  To see the records for your region, click here.

Some groups have also been found to be much more vulnerable than others. They include the elderly, pregnant women, isolated people and those with underlying health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity, and also those who work outdoors such as farmers and construction workers. School children and others engaged in sport or vigorous exercise are also likely to experience more heat stress. Where you live matters too. People in urban areas where there are large swathes of concrete are generally more at risk than those who live in the country. This is because concrete and paved surfaces absorb more heat and retain it far longer than areas with grass or trees. People on low incomes are also  more at risk if they can't access air conditioning, adequate healthcare and so on. They are also less likely to have green space in the vicinity.Extreme heat also affects us in other ways such as confusion or loss of concentration leading to accidents, lower productivity, even in office jobs and increases in crime or violence, during periods of intense heat, which may not be reflected in the statistics above. 

Things we can do to beat the heat

1.       The CDC says that 40% of the heat in a house comes in through windows, so if you can, install external awnings and shade cloth before the hot weather arrives.  Have air conditioners serviced for maximum efficiency, though be aware that if everyone turns theirs on at the same time, there may be power outages. The CDC also says that we should be as careful about sealing gaps around doors and windows in summer as we are in winter to prevent loss of cold air from the house. Wonderful as it is, air conditioning is not only expensive, but unless it powered by renewable energy, also adds to the problem of global warming.  Fans may help, but once the temperature reaches 38oC (100.4oF) they become less effective and may mask heat stress. Roof ventilation may help too.


1.       Watch the weather. Most countries now have excellent warning systems. Make sure you have plenty of water on hand and refrigerate some if you can. Keep medication cool. Keep some supplies too. You don’t want to have to rush about in hot weather. If you can make ice blocks and icepacks too. Sports drinks may be helpful because they contain electrolytes but soft drinks generally are not as beneficial as water  


2.       To keep the heat out of your house in the first place, close curtains and blinds and make sure awnings are down.


3.       Avoid vigorous activities in the hottest part of the day. If you must work or play sport, allow for plenty of breaks in the shade to cool off


4.       Wear light, loose and breathable clothing –natural fibres, because they allow the body to cool itself via perspiration. Dark colours will absorb more heat, whereas light colours deflect it. Wear a light hat outside too.


5.       Drink plenty of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Make sure children, athletes and vulnerable people drink plenty of water too.  Don’t forget pets and farm animals either and leave water for wildlife too if you can. Cool off yourself with cool showers or baths or by wetting exposed skin.

 6.      If you don’t have access to air conditioning, try to find places such as malls and libraries which do, having regard for any necessary COVID related  health  measures such as social distancing and not going anywhere if you have any symptoms. The same applies to public pools and beaches. Parks and gardens and shady trees help to dissipate heat by transpiration.

 7.       Try not to cook inside on a very hot day. When we lived in Darwin without an air conditioner, I’d cook things like rice and pasta in the evening so that we could have salads the next day. A microwave and ready meals will also reduce heat and cooking time. We also cooked outside on public barbecues so we didn’t make the kitchen any hotter than necessary.  


8.       Check on the elderly, children, people who live alone and other vulnerable people often.  Some elderly people and those with a range of other conditions may not be able to regulate their temperatures as well as healthy people, so be sure to check their temperature.  Temperatures above 39oC (103F) are life threatening and the person should immediately seek medical attention to prevent heat stroke organ damage or worse. Heat stroke is indicated by hot dry skin, the absence of perspiration and a strong fast pulse. The victim may also become confused or lose consciousness,  


9.       Other signs of heat stress include cramps, nausea, fainting and headaches, Take the person to a shady place, remove excess clothing and cool them with cold wraps, cool baths or showers. Make sure they drink plenty of water. Sports drinks with electrolyte replacement are also effective. Heat exhaustion is characterised by heavy sweating, paleness, vomiting, fainting, dizziness, cramps nausea or weakness. If the symptoms last more than hour, seek medical help.  Learn to recognise the signs of heat stress, or better still, do a First Aid Course.  You can also download the Red Cross App .


10.   Never, ever leave young children or pets in a car on a hot day. According to the CDC, 21 children died in hot cars in 2019 alone.  


This is just a general summary cobbled together from various sources. Check if there is a specific plan for your area. Several of Australia's state governments now have them - for example, this one by New South Wales Health 

or the one by the Red Cross

For the USA check the Government website