Health risks of extreme heat

LONDON (Reuters) – The world is baking in the heat as Asia, Europe and the United States deal with scorching temperatures.

What are the health risks?

Heat affects health in several ways.

Heat exhaustion, which can include dizziness, headache, shivering and thirst, can affect anyone and is not usually serious, causing a person to cool down within 30 minutes.

The most serious version is heatstroke, when the core body temperature is over 105°F (40.6°C). It is a medical emergency and can lead to long-term organ damage and death. Symptoms include rapid breathing, confusion or seizures, and nausea.

Who is at risk?

Some people are more vulnerable, including young children and the elderly, as well as people who must remain active or are at greater risk of infection, such as people who are homeless.

Existing conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as diabetes, can increase the risk — and are exacerbated by the heat.

Globally, fewer than half a million deaths per year are estimated to be caused by excessive heat, according to a 2021 study in The Lancet, though data from many low-income countries is lacking. As many as 61,000 people may have died in Europe during heat waves last summer, and a repeat this season is feared.

said Professor Liz Stephens, a researcher in climate risk and resilience at Britain’s University of Reading.

Less obvious risks

Air pollution also poses a health risk, with potentially serious effects from wildfire smoke including inflammation and tissue damage.

A number of studies have shown that heat can also lead to low birth weight and premature birth for pregnant women and babies.

There are less obvious risks, too. Extreme heat often contributes to poor mental health, as well as an increase in car accidents and drownings, said Dr Vicki Thompson, a climatologist at the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute.

“Heat waves are among the deadliest natural hazards,” she said.

timing matters

Experts say more deaths occur earlier in the summer when people’s bodies haven’t had a chance to acclimate.

Location is also important; People are at greater risk in places where they are not used to such heat, including parts of Europe.

However, there are limits, and people around the world are at risk in the extremely hot weather caused by climate change, particularly people who must continue to work in physical jobs, for example.

“It is more important than ever that we put measures in place to reduce the damage to our health,” said Dr Modi Mwatsama, Head of Capacity at Wellcome, a global health charity based in London. She said this ranged from providing shade and painting buildings white to investing in early warning systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases, such as cholera.

What you can do

Public health agencies from Italy to the United States have issued advice on keeping cool, including avoiding exertion as much as possible and staying hydrated. Scientists said workers should consider taking more breaks and changing their clothes, too.

It is also important to check on vulnerable groups, including the elderly and the isolated, they said.

Heatstroke is a medical emergency and requires immediate professional attention.

(Reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Kate Turton) Editing by Catherine Evans

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Jane reports on health issues affecting people around the world, from malaria to malnutrition. Part of the Health & Pharma team, recent notable pieces include an investigation into healthcare for transgender youth in the UK as well as stories of rising measles rates after COVID hit routine vaccination, as well as efforts to prevent…

    (tags for translation) RSBI: Climate Change 

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