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Tips for Managing Heat Stress

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Hot weather can take a serious toll on our health. In Europe in 2003, 70,000 people died in a heatwave. While such large-scale loss of life has not yet been experienced in an Australian summer, many parts of the country are experiencing exceptionally warm conditions that carry significant health risks – especially for older people, young children and those with chronic health conditions.

Bushfire safety researcher Professor Jim McLennan says we shouldn't underestimate the threat.

"The official total death toll due to the 2009 Victorian Black Saturday bushfires was 173. However, it was estimated that during the heatwave in south-eastern Australia [from] 17 January to 8 February 2009, some 374 people died from heat-related causes not associated with bushfires."

Associate Professor Adrian Barnett, principal research fellow in the Faculty of Health at Queensland University of Technology, says heat can kill because your cardiovascular system has to work harder when it's hot, and for some people this extra strain can cause a heart attack or stroke.

Severe exposure to heat can also kill by causing permanent tissue damage to vital organs.

Maintaining stable temperature

Your body's normal temperature is around 37 degrees Celcius. You maintain this stable temperature on a hot day or during exercise by sweating, which helps your body to cool itself. But when you sweat you lose fluid, and if you start losing more fluid than you are taking in, you become dehydrated. This means you won't be able to sweat as much, reducing your body's ability to bring your temperature down.

Early signs of heat stress

Heat-related illnesses range from mild conditions such as heat rash or cramps, through to heat stroke, which can be fatal. As the effects of heat stress cascade, it's important to know what the early signs look like.

Dr Liz Hanna, fellow of the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health at the Australian National University, says signs to look out for include:

and heavy sweating.
"The skin can be cold and clammy. Loss of salt from sweating can produce cramping. Anyone showing these symptoms should be taken to a cool place, rested and given cold drinks (no alcohol)."

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke occurs when the core body temperature rises above 40.5 degrees C and the body's internal systems start to shut down. There can be liver, kidney, muscle and heart damage and very often, the person's nervous system is affected, resulting in delirium, coma and seizures.

The skin may be dry with no sweating and a person may stagger, appear confused, fit, collapse and become unconscious. Every minute's delay in cooling a person with heat stroke increases the likelihood of permanent injury or death.

First aid for heat stroke

If you think someone may be affected by heat stroke:

Remove the person from the sun to a shady cool place
Call 000
Remove clothing and sponge down with cool water
Place ice packs over large blood vessels
Only give fluids to drink if the person is fully conscious
If they regain consciousness, give small amounts of cool water at short intervals. (See our Summer safety fact file for more.)

Preventing heat stress and heat stroke

Dr Margaret Loughnan, Research Fellow at Monash Weather and Climate, Monash University, says some key tips are:

avoid exposure – stay out of the sun and close blinds and curtains to shade rooms
avoid strenuous activity especially outdoors
keep drinking – by the time you feel thirsty your body is already dehydrating so drink often to avoid thirst
use air-conditioning or fans and wet the skin with moist towels to stay cool
wear loose, lightweight clothing and have a cool shower or tepid bath for babies and children.

Courtesy:  ABC News


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