In January 2009, 374 additional deaths were recorded during the heatwave in Victoria. This was an increase of 62% over what would have normally been expected for that time of year.
What are the risks?
In a severe heatwave you may get dehydrated and your body may overheat. If you already have a heart or respiratory problem, this may make your symptoms worse. Additionally, it can cause heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Keeping yourself cool will reduce the risk of illness. If you start to feel unwell, it is important to seek medical advice as soon as possible.
The symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- nausea and vomiting
- muscle weakness or cramps
- pale skin and
- a high temperature.
You should move somewhere cool and drink plenty of water or fruit juice. If you can, take a lukewarm shower, or sponge yourself down with cold water.
Heatstroke can develop if heat exhaustion is left untreated, but it can also occur suddenly and without warning.
- an intense thirst
- hot, red and dry skin
- a sudden rise in temperature
- convulsions and
- loss of consciousness.
Heatstroke can result in irreversible damage to your body, including the brain, or death.
Who is at risk?
The heat can affect anyone, but some people run a greater risk of serious harm. These include:
- older people
- babies and young children
- with serious mental health problems
- on certain medication
- with a serious chronic condition, particularly breathing or heart problems
- who already have a high temperature from an infection
- who misuse alcohol or take illicit drugs
- with mobility problems
- who are physically active, like manual workers and sportsmen and women.
Factors which increase the risk:
- an inability to adapt your behaviour to extreme heat
- social isolation
- a home that you cannot cool
- health conditions which are worse in extreme heat.
What should you do?
If you or someone you know has any of the above heat related illnesses, whatever the underlying cause of heat related symptoms, the treatment is always the same – move the person to somewhere cooler and cool them down.
Mostly it’s a matter of common sense. Listen to your local weather forecast so you know if a heatwave is on the way and plan ahead to reduce the risk of ill health from the heat.
If the power is out
Often heatwaves and power outages occur together. Remember that if the power goes out, air conditioners, fans, lights, fridges and freezers won’t work, making it hard to keep cool and ensure that foods don’t spoil.
Also, radios and walk-around telephones may not work if they need power making it very hard to contact clients to make sure that they are coping with the heat.
Read the state government guide to power outages for more information.
How to look after yourself and others
Keep out of the heat
- If a heatwave is forecast, try and plan your day in a way that allows you to stay out of the heat.
- If you can, avoid going out in the hottest part of the day (11:00am to 3:00pm).
- If you can’t avoid strenuous outdoor activity, like sport, DIY, or gardening, keep it for cooler parts of the day, like early morning or evening.
- If you must go out, stay in the shade. Wear a hat and light, loose-fitting clothes, preferably cotton. If you will be outside for some time, take plenty of water with you.
- A loose, cotton, damp cloth or scarf on the back of the neck, or spraying or splashing your face and the back of your neck with cold water several times a day can help keep you cool.
- Stay inside, in the coolest rooms in your home, as much as possible.
- Reduce heat from sunlight coming through the windows. External shading, e.g. shutters, is best. Metal blinds and dark curtains may absorb heat and make the room warmer – it is best to use pale curtains or reflective material.
- Keep windows closed while the room is cooler than it is outside. Open them when the temperature inside rises, and at night for ventilation. If you are worried about security, at least open windows on the first floor and above.
- Indoor and outdoor plants will help keep your home cool due to evaporation and the shading from trees and bushes.
- Take cool showers or baths.
- Drink regularly even if you do not feel thirsty – water or fruit juice are best.
- Try to avoid alcohol, tea and coffee. They make dehydration worse.
- Eat as you normally would. Try to eat more cold food, particularly salads and fruit, which contain water.
Seek advice if you have any concerns
- Contact Nurse on Call, your Doctor, a pharmacist if you are worried about your health during a heatwave, especially if you are taking medication, if you feel unwell or have any unusual symptoms.
- Watch for cramp in your arms, legs or stomach, feelings of mild confusion, weakness or problems sleeping.
- If you have these symptoms, rest for several hours, keep cool and drink water or fruit juice. Seek medical advice if they get worse or don’t go away.
Remember, heatstroke can kill. It can develop very suddenly and rapidly lead to unconsciousness. If you suspect someone has heatstroke, call Nurse on Call or 000 immediately.
If anyone you know is likely to be at risk during a heatwave help them get the advice and support they need. Older people living on their own should be visited daily to check they are okay.
While waiting for the ambulance
- If possible, move the person somewhere cooler.
- Increase ventilation by opening windows or using a fan.
- Cool them down as quickly as possibly by loosening their clothes, sprinkling them with cold water or wrapping them in a damp sheet.
- If they are conscious, give them water or fruit juice to drink.
- Do not give them aspirin or paracetamol.
A range of heatwave communication resources have been developed by the Department of Health to encourage and educate individuals and the community to be aware of the impact of extreme heat on human health.