Heatwaves

Heatwaves are perhaps our most under-rated and least studied natural hazard.

During the 20th century, heatwaves have probably caused more deaths in Australia than any other natural hazard.  A single heatwave in southern Australia once resulted in 437 deaths and seriously affected many thousands.  Heat can also cause expensive livestock and crop losses, as well as damage to roads, railways, bridges, etc.

Every summer, people suffer from heat stress when the body absorbs more heat than it can dispel.  Prompt action will avoid the serious and often fatal consequences of fully developed heat stroke.  At most risk are young children; the elderly; those with alcohol, weight or health problems; and people on medications/drugs that have a drying effect or reduce perspiration.  Seek medical advice in all such cases.

Be prepared

  • Wear lightweight and light-coloured, loose and porous clothes and a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Avoid strenuous activities.
  • Drink two to three litres of water per day, even if not thirsty.
  • Do not have alcoholic or carbonated soft drinks.
  • Do not take salt tablets unless prescribed by a doctor.
  • Avoid heavy protein foods (eg. meat, dairy, etc) which raise body heat and increase fluid loss.
  • Keep your home cool with curtains, shutters or awnings on the sunny side and leave windows open at night.
  • If you don't have air conditioning, use fans and damp towels, etc to stay cool.
  • Have frequent cool showers.
  • Spend as much time as possible in air-conditioning buildings (eg. shopping centres, galleries, museums, etc).
  • Avoid direct sunlight if possible.
  • Use strong sunscreen; sunburn limits the body's ability to cope with heat.
  • Do not leave children (or pets) in parked vehicles.
  • If you suffer chronic illness or feel unwell, see a doctor.
  • Give animals access to shade and plenty of water.

Heat stress symptoms and first aid treatment

Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms, usually in the stomach, arms or legs.  They may occur after strenuous activity in a hot environment when the body's salt and water are depleted.  They may be a symptom of heat exhaustion.

To treat heat cramps, you should stop activity and sit quietly in a cool place.  Increase fluid intake, rest a few hours and if there is no improvement, seek medical help.

Heat exhaustion is a serious condition that can develop into heat stroke.  Symptoms may include sweating and rapid heart rate, muscle cramps or weakness, dizziness and headache, nausea or vomiting and fainting.

To treat heat exhaustion, you should lie down in a cool area, remove outer clothing, drink more fluids, wet skin with cool water or cloths and seek medical advice.

Heat stroke is life threatening.  It occurs when the body cannot prevent rapid temperature rises.  Symptoms may be the same as for heat exhaustion but the skin may be dry (no sweating).  The person's mental state worsens.  They may stagger, appear confused, have a fit or collapse and become unconscious or appear to have a stroke.

To treat heat stroke, call 000 for an ambulance, get the person to lie down in a cool area, remove clothing, and wet skin while fanning.  Position unconscious people on their side to clear the airway.

Information provided by Australian Emergency Management.