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The Detrimental Health Effects of the Summer Heat Wave

Living in a very hot country, we take it for granted each year that we’ll suffer through some periods of extreme heat, there usually isn’t much that we can actually do to prepare for these heat waves, and mostly, we just go about our day as normal. It is worthwhile being a bit more mindful of how these periods of very hot weather can affect us, and our children.

Prolonged exposure to high temperatures throughout summer can have detrimental effects on our health, particularly for babies, young children and the elderly. But through a combination of modern technology and a bit of vigilance, it can be well managed.

The obvious conditions such as heat stroke and heat exhaustion should not be underestimated1, but extreme heat can also bring about muscle cramps, irritability, heat oedema (swelling of the ankles), confusion, dizziness and fainting. Skin conditions such as heat rash, can also be an issue, particularly for babies and young children still in nappies. Letting children go ‘nappy-free’ or changing nappies more frequently will help avoid the clammy skin that can lead to rash and skin discomfort.

Keeping up regular fluids is an important part of managing the heat. Our appetites can be impacted during a heatwave and this can contribute to dehydration and a lack of energy2. Our bodies work hard to manage the effects of hot weather, and this can be compromised if our appetites are impacted due to the heat.

As well as interfering with our appetites, hot uncomfortable nights can lead to sleep deprivation. Sleep deprivation has not been a focus when it comes to looking after yourself in extreme heat events, and is seen as a mere annoyance than as any real health risk.

If body temperature remains elevated overnight, the body doesn’t get the respite that it needs. Lack of sleep can compromise safety on the road, makes looking after children a little bit harder, and is generally not much fun, leaving you cranky and short-tempered.

It is worthwhile being aware of the symptoms of more serious health conditions brought on by extreme heat events, as if left untreated they can develop into more serious, life-threatening conditions. Symptoms of heat stress include:

  • Heat rash3, which is also known as ‘prickly heat’ due to the irritating itch and prickly sensation that occurs. It appears as a cluster of small red pimples or blisters and usually appears on the neck, upper chest, in elbow and knee creases, under the breasts and in the groin. It occurs when the sweat ducts become blocked or inflamed due to excessive sweating.
  • Cramps, including muscle pain and spasms. This is often associated with dehydration as muscle cramps occur when the body is depleted of salt water (often through excessive sweating). Pain can occur in the stomach, arms or legs.
  • Dizziness and fainting. Excessive heat causes the blood to pool at the surface of the skin, reducing its circulation around the brain. The result can be a sudden drop in blood pressure causing light-headedness or dizziness, and fainting.

Heat stress can quickly turn into Heat Stroke, which is a life-threatening illness. It occurs when the body’s core temperature goes beyond 40.5ºC. Symptoms to look for that may suggest the beginnings of heat stroke are going from sweating to a lack of perspiration – this is a key danger sign because sweating is the body’s own internal cooling system, when the sweating ceases the body temperature will rapidly rise. Other symptoms include an increased heart rate, paleness, headache, muscle cramps, usually in the abdomen, arms or legs, dizziness or fainting, nausea and vomiting.

There are some people who are at a higher risk of heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses so need to take even more care4. These groups include:

  • babies and young children
  • pregnant women and nursing mothers
  • elderly and socially isolated people
  • those with long term health conditions, such as heart or respiratory disease, circulatory diseases, diabetes or obesity
  • people taking certain medications (such as diuretics and blood pressure medication)
  • people who work in poorly ventilated areas, or outdoors.

Babies and small children in particular need to be watched closely in very hot weather5. They are unable to regulate their own body temperature effectively because they sweat less than an adult or older child. This reduces their ability to cool themselves down. Signs that your baby may be ill from the heat include; generally looking unwell, are more irritable than usual, they have fewer wet nappies or have very dark urine (a light straw colour is normal), they are sleepy or floppy, have pale and clammy skin, are refusing to drink or feed, have dry skin, mouth or eyes (no tears when crying), and a sunken fontanelle (soft spot on the baby’s head).

Australia has no official national heatwave plan, so it is important to be vigilant and proactive in looking after yourself and your family during an extreme weather event. There are things that you can do to help reduce the chance of a heat-related illness6.

  • Remain hydrated
    Drink plenty of water and offer your baby extra milk feeds and pre-boiled cooled water in between feeds (if your baby is over six months).
  • Remain indoors during the hottest part of the day
    If possible, remain indoors during the hottest part of the day, and avoid being out in direct sunlight if you can. If you must be outside during the day ensure you cover up by using sunscreen, a wide-brimmed hat and light clothing. Limit your physical activity, as this can quickly take its toll in extreme heat. Eat regular light meals to ensure your energy levels remain steady.
  • Air condition your home
    Installing an air conditioning system in your home will assist in keeping the family cool and comfortable all summer long. Modern ducted systems offer home owners a discrete and flexible whole home solution where homeowners can control the temperature in multiple rooms or the entire home using the one system – perfect for keeping everyone comfortable, particularly during those very hot nights.

Long hot summers are part of what makes Australia one of the best places in the world to live – the warm weather enables an outdoor lifestyle that is beneficial to our overall health and well being. But extremely hot weather is not, so be wise with your health this summer – drink lots of water, eat well, get some decent rest and invest in an air conditioner.

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Fujitsu is a leading supplier of air conditioning products in Australia. Proud to be ‘Australia’s Favourite Air’, Fujitsu General Australia has a product portfolio to suit residential and commercial applications. Rigorous research and development has resulted in an extensive range of world-class, stylish and energy efficient systems.