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Staying safe during long heatwaves

Australian summers are getting hotter and over the last few years there has been an increase in record hot days. Heatwaves can be a difficult time for older people. Especially when the heat never seems to end.

Key Points

  • Elderly people are one of the most at-risk groups during a heatwave

  • Take heed of upcoming heatwaves and check on any elderly neighbours, friends or family

  • Mild heat-related issues should be dealt with at home and with friends, heatstroke is considered an emergency and you should contact your GP, hospital or ambulance service immediately 

Women is not coping during hot weather and is cooling down using a fan
People aged 65 and over have a higher mortality rate during heatwaves. [Source: Shutterstock]

Elderly people are more in danger of dehydration and medical emergencies because their bodies are less able to regulate itself during extreme heat events.

A study from 2018 found the first few days of a heatwave had a raised mortality rate in Australian elderly people, an average death increase of 28 percent. 

The researchers of Heatwave and elderly mortality: An evaluation of death burden and health costs considering short-term mortality displacement, suggested targeted interventions for the elderly population and more effective heatwave warnings.

People aged 65 and over have a higher mortality rate during heatwaves, and people over the age of 75 are most vulnerable to extreme weather conditions.

Health Victoria has commissioned studies into heatwaves and the impact on elderly people over the years, finding that many people were not aware that heatwaves have caused more deaths in Australia over the past 200 years than other extreme weather events such as floods or cyclones.

What heat does to the body?

When you are hot, your body attempts to cool you down through an increase in your cardiac output, sweat and blood flow. If your body can’t cope with the heat after attempting these methods, your body experiences heat stress.

The main term for heat-related medical conditions is hyperthermia.

There are a number of lesser medical conditions you might develop during heatwaves.

For instance, heat syncope, which is dizziness when you are active on hot days. Especially if you are taking a form of heart medication, you are more likely to feel faint.

Heat syncope can occur when you have low blood pressure. For example, if you are standing up for too long in the heat, your blood vessels expand, resulting in body fluid accumulating in the legs because of gravity. The sudden low blood pressure can result in fainting.

Heat cramps are muscle spasm, usually in the stomach, arms or legs, as a result of the loss of salt and water through exercise. If the heat causes you to lose fluid and electrolytes, you can end up having cramps.

Heat rashes and heat edema are also common, where your ankles and feet get hot and begin to swell.

When you start experiencing heat exhaustion, this can be a strong indicator that your body is no longer able to regulate its temperature and keep cool. It can cause dizziness, weakness, thirst or nausea. You may also feel like your skin is clammy and have a rapid pulse.

If you start experiencing symptoms of heat stroke, this is when you are in danger.

Heat stroke can cause fainting, behavioural changes, high body temperature, flush skin with a rapid pulse (or a slow weak pulse) and no sweat.

If you have heart problems, poorly working sweat glands, heart, lung or kidney disease or are overweight, you increase your risk of heat-related medical emergencies or mortality.

Regardless of your activity level and fitness, elderly people will always be susceptible to heatwaves and vulnerable to dangerous medical emergencies.

How to protect yourself during hot weather

During long Australian heatwaves, it is important that you drink above your normal water intake.

Even if you aren’t thirsty, push yourself to drink water. If it is too hard, try sucking on iceblocks or ice chips to help you keep up your fluids.

Avoid alcohol, coffee or other drinks that have caffeine. Other drinks like fruit or vegetable juices are good ways to improve hydration and sugar levels.

If you have air conditioning, then use it. It is a common misconception that older people who die from heat don’t have air conditioning. On most occasions, the older person does have air conditioning but they choose not to use it because they worry about the electricity costs.

And anyone who utilises fans needs to remember that fans do not cool the air around you, only pushes air around the room. Fans utilise your own sweat to help cool your body down by evaporating it off your body. However, this system is not very effective once temperatures reach over 35 degrees.

If your house is too hot or you don’t have any form of air conditioning, head out to places that do have cooling systems in place, such as a shopping centre, the cinema, a community centre or a friend or family’s house.

It is also important to try and minimise your exposure to direct sunlight.

Wear loose clothes that aren’t too warm and be mindful of the type of fabric. Cotton and linen are good fabrics for hot weather because they are a good conductor of heat and don't block airflow.

If you do need to go outside, try to stay in the shade, avoid places with crowds or any form of exercise outside.

If you live in aged care or receive home care services, providers should be looking for signs of heat exhaustion and making sure you are managing through heatwaves.

Worried about someone’s safety or your own safety?

If you start feeling unwell during a heatwave, contact triple zero (000) for an ambulance. However, if you are able, visiting a doctor’s office is another way to get the help you need.

Additionally, you can contact HealthDirect on 1800 022 222, 24/7, to talk to a registered nurse for advice.

There are state based services that check-up on elderly people on behalf of family and friends. For instance, South Australia has the Red Cross Telecross Redi Service (on 1800 188 071), which helps people cope during extreme weather events.

What are your tips for keeping cool during heatwaves? Let us know in the comments below.

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