Over the last few years, man-made climate change has caused a series of extreme weather events. The most recent unprecedented weather in the UK happened in July, when soaring temperatures led to the Met Office issuing its first ever heat-related red warning.
Extreme sunshine affected much of the UK, with 46 separate weather stations recording a temperature that either equalled or exceeded the UK’s previous high.
Coningsby in Lincolnshire registered a new highest-ever UK temperature, with the thermometer hitting 40.3°C – the first time the UK has ever seen a temperature in the 40s.
Dr Mark McCarthy of the National Climate Information Centre said: “In a climate unaffected by human-induced climate change, it would be virtually impossible for temperatures in the UK to reach 40°C but climate change is already making UK heatwaves more frequent, intense and long-lasting.”
In the coming years these periods of extreme heat are likely to become more commonplace. So read on to find out why they are such a risk to health, and for 10 practical things you can do next time a heatwave arrives.
Exposure to heat can cause serious health issues
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 166,000 people died due to heatwaves between 1998 and 2017.
Exposure to heat can cause heat exhaustion and heatstroke – conditions which cause faintness, as well as dry, warm skin, due to the inability of the body to control high temperatures.
Other symptoms include:
- Swelling in the lower limbs
- Heat rash on the neck
Heat can also cause severe dehydration, acute cerebrovascular accidents and contribute to blood clots.
Children, older people, and those with chronic diseases are more at risk
During a heatwave, there are certain groups that have a greater risk of health complications and death:
- People with chronic diseases that take daily medication, including those with heart or lung conditions, diabetes, kidney disease, Parkinson's disease, or some mental health conditions
- Older people – especially those aged over 75
- Those who may find it hard to keep cool – babies and children, people with drug or alcohol addictions or individuals with Alzheimer's disease
- People who spend a lot of time outside or in hot places – those who live in a top floor flat, the homeless or people who work outside.
With heatwaves likely to become more prevalent in the future, here are 10 practical things you can do next time the temperature starts to rise
Drink lots of fluids
In hot weather, it’s important to keep hydrated – and that means you need to drink more.
Try and avoid alcohol if you can. A combination of sweating more in the heat and going to the toilet more means you will often lose more fluid than you take in if you drink alcohol. So, you’ll become dehydrated unless you replace that lost fluid by drinking water or other soft drinks.
Don’t leave anyone in a car
Never leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle in a high temperature, even with the windows open. This is particularly important for infants, young children, and animals.
Keep the inside cool
One of the key public health messages of the Heatwave Plan for England is to keep out of the sun between 11am and 3pm. As well as this, there are a few steps you can take to keep the inside cool:
- Turn off non-essential lights and electrical equipment as they can create heat
- Close curtains that are in the sun – but be aware dark curtains can absorb heat. So, consider putting reflective material between them and the window space
- Keep windows exposed to the sun closed in the day, but open them at night
- An electric fan can help – but be aware it can dehydrate you.
Remember also that it may sometimes be cooler outside than it is indoors!
Take precautions if you have to go outside
If you do have to go outside in the heat of the day, walk in the shade, apply sunscreen regularly and wear a wide-brimmed hat.
Also remember to take regular breaks indoors or in a shaded area. Wearing light-coloured, loose-fitting clothing can also help you to keep cool.
Heat escapes through your skin, so the more skin you can cool down, the better.
If it is very hot, wetting a T-shirt and keeping it wet can be effective. Alternatively, use cooling spray or have a cool shower.
This can also work for animals – many pet retailers sell dog “wetsuits” which you can drench in water and use to keep your pet cool.
A simple way to cool yourself down quickly is by putting your hands and feet in cold water. Wrists and ankles have lots of pulse points where blood vessels are close to the skin, so you will cool down faster.
…but take care in open water if you’re cooling down
If you plan to cool down by heading to open water, always take care and follow any local safety advice. In 2021 alone, 277 people in the UK tragically died after drowning.
Lakes, rivers, streams, reservoirs or the sea contain hidden hazards such as weeds or strong currents, and there may be a risk of injury from boats.
Additionally, the water may be far colder than you expect. This can lead to cold water shock, an incapacitating condition that can lead to heart attacks and drowning.
As the Royal National Lifeboat Institute (RNLI) says: “This can all happen very quickly: it only takes half a pint of sea water to enter the lungs for a fully grown man to start drowning”.
Look after others
As you read above, certain categories of people are more at risk when temperatures soar.
So, always look out for elderly neighbours – especially if they live alone – during a period of sustained hot weather.
The Heatwave Plan for England urges you to be alert “and call a doctor or social services if someone is unwell or further help is needed”.
Keep cool at night
As you may well have discovered, warmer temperatures can make it difficult to get a good night’s sleep. So, you’ll need to keep your home as cool as you can.
If it is still too hot, try sleeping in the coolest room in your home, or (if you can) move to the ground floor. Heat rises so downstairs is often cooler.
Try having a cool shower before bed to reduce your body temperature, and don’t be tempted to ditch a bed covering entirely. A thin sheet can help.
Don’t exercise at the hottest time of the day
Sometimes you will need to change your routine in the heat, particularly when it comes to exercise. It can be dangerous to exercise in the midday sun and you could risk dehydration, heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
If you can, limit your physical activity to when it's cooler. If you do decide to work out or play sport, drink lots of water and take more breaks than usual.
Know how to spot, and deal with, heatstroke
Heatstroke can be life-threatening if not treated quickly. Symptoms include hot or flushed skin, a headache, dizziness, confusion, or an individual becoming unresponsive.
If you spot these symptoms, call 999 immediately and quickly move the person to a cool environment.
While you are waiting for medical assistance, remove any outer clothing, loosely wrap them in damp clothes or sponge them with water.
Get in touch
While we can’t protect you against rising temperatures, we can help you benefit from the peace of mind that you and your family are protected if the worst happens.
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