With summer approaching and the weather set to heat up, it can be tempting to head outside and soak up some of the sun’s rays. With many sports in full swing during summer it can be hard to avoid the heat while playing sport or exercising. But during extreme heat it is easy to become dehydrated or for your body to overheat, which can lead to a spectrum of heat-related illnesses. Heatwaves have killed more Australians than all other natural hazards combined. There were 374 deaths during the severe heatwaves in Victoria in 2009 when Melbourne experienced three consecutive days at or above 43 degrees Celsius.
The best way to survive the heat is to plan ahead for hot days and to know what to do when the heat arrives. Anyone can be affected by hot weather, including young and healthy individuals.
People most at risk in hot weather include:
- Those aged over 65 years old, especially if living alone
- Those with a medical condition such as diabetes, kidney disease or mental illness
- Those with problematic drug or alcohol use
- Those with a disability
- Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers
- Babies and young children
- Overweight or obese individuals
- Those who work or exercise outdoors
Staying safe while exercising in the heat
Heat and exercise can be a dangerous combination! Heat stress occurs when sweat can’t evaporate fast enough to keep the body cool enough. Heat stress can be prevented during sport by drinking plenty of fluids, resting frequently and avoiding exercise during the hottest part of the day. Sports drinks or powders such as Endura can be helpful to add to water to replace lost electrolytes in sweat such as sodium, potassium and magnesium, and have a slight flavouring which can make water more palatable and easier to drink.
If you do have to go outside, wear a hat and sunscreen and try to stay in the shade. Try to wear light coloured, loose-fitting clothing made from natural fibres like cotton or linen.
It can also be helpful to check the UV index. When it is 3 or above, a UV alert is issued by the Bureau of Meteorology and you should use sun protection such as sunscreen. For smartphone users, Cancer Council Australia’s free Sunsmart app is a great way to check the UV alert when you are out and about. IPhone users can download it at the ITunes App Store, and Android Google Play.
Recognising symptoms of heat-related illness
Symptoms include dizziness, tiredness, irritability, thirst, dark yellow urine, loss of appetite and fainting.
What to do: If you may be dehydrated drink plenty of water or diluted fruit juice and avoid tea, coffee or alcohol. Move to somewhere cool and if possible use a spray bottle of water to you down. An oral rehydration solution such as Hydralyte can be helpful as well.
These usually affect people who sweat a lot during strenuous activity, which causes the body to lose both salt and water, leading to cramps (muscle pain or spasms). Heat cramps can be an early sign of heat exhaustion.
What to do: Rest and lie in a cool place with your legs slightly raised. Drink water or diluted fruit juice, massage your limbs to reduce the spasms and apply cool packs. Avoid strenuous activity until a few hours after the cramps have subsided. If they continue for longer than an hour, seek medical attention.
This is the body’s reaction to losing large amounts of water and salt contained in sweat. It is a serious condition and can develop into heatstroke.
Symptoms include heavy sweating, pale skin, fast and weak pulse, fast and shallow breathing, muscle weakness/ cramps, tiredness and weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea or vomiting and fainting.
What to do: Move to a cool place and lie down. Remove excess clothing, take small sips of cool fluids and have a cool shower, bath or sponge bath. Put cool packs under the armpits, on the groin or the back of the neck to lower body heat. If symptoms last for longer than one hour, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
Heat stroke is a medical emergency and requires urgent attention. It is fatal in up to 80% of cases. Heatstroke occurs when the core body temperature rises above 40.5 degrees Celsius and the body’s internal systems start to shut down. Many organs in the body are damaged and the body temperature must be reduced quickly. Most people will have major central nervous system changes such as delirium, coma and seizures. The affected person may stagger, appear confused, have a fit or collapse and become unconscious. Damage may also occur to the liver, kidney, muscle and heart.
The symptoms of heatstroke may be the same as heat exhaustion, but the skin may be dry with no sweating and the person’s mental condition worsens.
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