Hot weather can take a serious toll on our health.
Severe and extreme heatwaves in Australia have caused more deaths than any other natural disaster in the last 200 years, the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website says.
For instance, the official death toll of the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires was 173, but 374 people died from heat-related causes during the heatwave that preceded it. (And it’s worse in other parts of the world, in Europe in 2003, 70,000 people died in a heatwave.)
It’s not just days where temperatures are above the high 30s that pose a significant health risk. Heat-related illness can also be an issue at much lower temperatures, said Associate Professor Adrian Barnett, from QUT.
“Focusing on the extreme heatwave days… does give the public the impression that the other hot, but not intensely hot, days are safe and they are not,” Dr Barnett said.
“Thirty degrees days can also be very, very dangerous and they occur far more often and they normally end up presenting the bigger problem.”
But heatwaves do increase the chances of things going wrong and that can lead to “a catastrophic failure which can really push things over the edge”, he said.
“The ambulance drivers not being able to work because it’s too hot or the hospitals getting so packed. That is especially true when you have a long power cut combined with heat because air conditioning is a great way to reduce your risk of [heat-related illness],” he said.
Who’s at risk?
Extreme heat can affect any one of us, especially if we’re spending outdoors in the heat of the day.
Those most at risk include older people, young children and those with chronic health conditions, in particular those with cardiovascular disease. The thing is, there are many people who are unaware they’re at risk of cardiovascular disease.
“So people who may not even realise they are walking around with a cardiovascular problem and a day like today is a perfect day for that problem to flare into something that requires them to call an ambulance or can even kill them.”
Another group hit hard by hot weather are pregnant women.
“Lots of studies around the world now show higher temperatures are strongly associated with an increased risk for pre-term births,” Dr Barnett said.
Other people more affected by heat are those taking certain medications, such as blood-pressure-lowing medications, antidepressants and some allergy treatments.
Maintaining stable temperature
Your normal temperature is around 37 degrees Celsius. Sweating is the way your body keeps itself cool so you can maintain a stable temperature on a hot day or during exercise.