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Heat wave health risks

The ongoing heatwave across southern and southeastern Europe is pushing temperatures in the high 30s and locally even well above 40 °C – an extended period of such hot weather is physically challenging and presents enhanced risk for health.

Very hot weather, in particular in extended periods – heat waves – is uncomfortable, but it also presents a very significant health risk. During the European heat wave of 2003, the most intense heat wave in Europe on record, over 70 000 people died as the result of the hot weather. As the heat wave in southern and southeastern Europe intensifies, make sure to know the health risks and how to keep you and your loved ones healthy. Here are some informative guidelines:

Who is most at risk?

Hot weather is uncomfrotable to most, but the following groups are particularly threatened by very high temperatures:

  • elderly people aged over 75 years
  • babies, young children
  • people with chronic / long term health conditions, such as diabetes, respiratory disease, circulatory disease
  • people who are obese
  • people taking certain medicines
  • people who work outdoors, or in hot/poorly ventilated areas, or engage in physical activity in hot weather
  • people who are socially isolated
  • people who are not aclimatised to hot weather, such as tourists from northern countries

How to stay cool, hydrated and healthy in hot weather

Consider taking these precautions and measures to stay healthy in very hot weather:

  • Drink plenty of water! – the body cools through sweating and on a very hot day an adult may lose up to several liters of water. Keep drinking water. Avoid drinking alcohol, hot drinks, and drinks with high sugar content, as they can make dehydration worse. A regular intake of water is a good way of preventing dehydration.
  • Keep cool – keep your body cool, stay out of the sun. Eat small meals, preferably fruit and salads. Wear light-colored and loose clothing, made from natural materials like cotton. Take a cool shower or a cold bath if you feel hot. Also – keep your workspace and living space cool. If you do not have air conditioning, shut the curtains and blinds during the day. Stay in the coolest room and avoid using the stove and oven as much as possible. If your home gets too hot, go to a cooler place – a library, shopping center, cinema or swimming pool.
  • Keep your food safe! – keep food that needs refrigeration properly stored! Food spoils rapidly at high temperatures and you may risk food poisoning if the food is not properly stored.
  • If you need to go out in the sun – make sure to protect your skin, use proper sunscreen and clothing to avoid sunburns. Cover your head properly.
  • Know your body, have a plan – ask your doctor if you have any health conditions that may increase the risk of heat-related illness. Call and consult with your doctor if you are feeling unwell. Call emergency help (know the number!) if you are feeling very unwell!

Common heat-related illnesses – symptoms and what to do

Consider taking these precautions and measures to stay healthy in very hot weather. Keep in mind these descriptions and treatments are informative only – consult with your doctor for details and professional advice:

  • Dehydration occurs when the body loses too much water to maintain its normal functions. Symptoms include dizziness, tiredness, irritability, thirst, dark yellow urine, loss of appetite, fainting. Drink plenty of water or diluted fruit juice. Avoid coffee, alcohol, and sugary drinks. Move to a cool space to cool off. If you feel unwell, call your doctor or emergency room.
  • Heat rash is an itchy rash, caused by excessive sweating. Move to a cooler, dryer environment, and keep the affected areas dry. Hydrating creams may make the condition worse. Consult with your doctor.
  • Heat cramps happen during strenuous activity when the body sweats a lot and loses water and salt. Heat cramps manifest as muscle pains or spasms. If this happens, stop all activity and move/lie down in a cool place, raise your legs slightly. Drink water or diluted juice. Have a cool shower or bath, apply ice packs. Do not return to strenuous activity for several hours. If heat cramps do not subside, seek medical help.
  • Heat exhaustion is the condition in response to losing excessive amounts of water and salt. Symptoms include heavy sweating, pale skin, fast and weak pulse, fast and shallow breathing, muscle weakness or cramps, tiredness and weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting, fainting. If heat exhaustion occurs, the body needs to be cooled and rehydrated by moving to a cooled place and lying down, having a cool shower or bath, placing cool packs under the armpits, groin or back of the neck. Rehydration should be done by taking small amounts of cool fluids. Medical help is advised if symptoms do not abate within an hour. Find more information on heat exhaustion here.
  • Heat stroke happens when the body temperature reaches 40.5 °C and is an extremely serious and life-threatening condition! Immediate first aid in lowering body temperature is critical and well as immediate call for an ambulance! Find more information on heatstroke here.

This section is informative and by no means an exhaustive medical guide, rather these are informative guidelines to help you familiarize yourself with the risks, the symptoms and some remedies. Note that some symptoms may be indicative of other health problems and need to be treated as such. Consult with your doctor for definitive information and instructions. Keep safe during the ongoing heatwave, keep in mind that heat-related illness can affect anybody, and plan your activities accordingly. Seek medical help if you experience strong and/or prolonged symptoms of heat-related illness.