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How to protect yourself in a heat wave

Australia is set for its hottest summer in nearly a decade. It helps to be prepared.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has declared El Niño is officially underway for the first time in eight years meaning you can expect a heat wave in Australia. What is El Niño? It is a climate pattern that describes the “unusual warming of surface waters in the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean,” as per National Geographic. What does this mean? It means we’re likely in for a severe heat wave; a hot and dry summer.

“When [an El Niño and positive Indian Ocean Dipole] occur together, that tends to increase the severity of rainfall deficiencies,” said the BoM‘s head of climate monitoring, Karl Braganza.

“Those conditions are accompanied by an increase in fire danger and extremely hot days.” Indeed, fire season has already begun in New South Wales, Queensland and the Northern Territory. To prepare for bushfires, authorities have been conducting hazard reduction burns.

It’s no surprise that this heat wave in Australia can have significant consequences on our health.

How heat affects our health

“Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can lead to heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion and heatstroke,” says Dr Tanya Unni.

“These conditions can manifest with symptoms such as excessive sweating, dizziness, nausea, and in severe cases, confusion and loss of consciousness. Individuals with pre-existing medical conditions, particularly cardiovascular diseases, may experience worsened symptoms due to the stress placed on the body by extreme heat.”

While there is collective worry about the impending heatwave, Australian Red Cross’ Chief of Staff, Penny Harrison, claimed that this “concern is not translating into active preparation”. 

“We know the better prepared you are, the better your capacity to respond and recover from any emergency. Just thinking about it is not enough.”

Analog picture of woman at beach with colorful umbrella on background.

How to prepare for extreme heat

“To prepare for the impending heat wave in Australia, it is imperative to adopt a proactive approach,” says Dr Tanya. 

“First and foremost, staying informed about weather forecasts and heatwave warnings is essential. Adequate hydration is crucial; individuals should consume ample water throughout the day to maintain proper fluid balance.

“Additionally, it is advisable to wear lightweight and loose-fitting clothing, use sunscreen to protect against harmful UV radiation, and avoid strenuous physical activities during the hottest parts of the day.”

Those are the steps we can take to prepare, but the reality will always be different. So, once the heat hits, how can we protect ourselves?

How to protect ourselves from extreme heat

  • Stay hydrated: “Drink plenty of water throughout the day, even if you don’t feel thirsty,” says Dr Tanya. “Dehydration can worsen the effects of heat, so aim to maintain proper fluid balance. Avoid excessive caffeine and alcohol, as they can contribute to dehydration.”
  • Time your activities wisely: “Plan outdoor activities during the cooler hours of the day, typically in the early morning or evening, to minimise heat-related risks.”
  • Use sunscreen: “Apply a sunscreen with a high SPF rating to exposed skin to protect against harmful UV rays. Sunburn can increase your risk of heat-related illnesses and make you feel even hotter.”
  • Seek shade: “When outdoors, shade significantly reduces the heat absorbed by your body and helps you stay cooler. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses can offer additional protection from UV rays.”
  • Remember to check on vulnerable individuals: “During summer, it is also important to keep an eye on vulnerable individuals around you, such as the elderly, children, and those with pre-existing medical conditions as they are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses.”

It’s one thing to protect ourselves from the health consequences of the heat wave in Australia. But what about when we have been exposed to heat, and simply need to cool down?

Latina Runner running in the city near river. Standing under the bridge, making break to drink some water. Cityscape in background.

How to cool down quickly

  • Use cool compresses: “Apply cool, damp washcloths or compresses to areas with high blood flow, such as your forehead, neck, wrists, and ankles,” says Dr Tanya. “This helps lower your body temperature by promoting heat loss through the skin.”
  • Wear appropriate clothing: “Look for lightweight, loose-fitting, and light-coloured clothing in natural fibres such as cotton or linen, as they provide breathability during the hotter months.”
  • Take cool showers or baths: “A refreshing cool shower or bath can provide immediate relief from the heat. The water should be comfortably cool, but not too cold, to avoid shock.”
  • Utilise cooling measures: “If available, use fans or air conditioning to maintain a comfortable indoor environment. If these options are not accessible, employ cool damp cloths, take cool showers, or use a spray bottle to mist your skin.”
  • Stay hydrated with electrolytes: “Although staying hydrated is necessary all year round, when you do drink water, consider adding electrolyte solutions. These can help replace essential minerals lost through sweating, aiding in your body’s cooling mechanism.”

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