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Beat the Heat: How to Stay Safe During a Heatwave

  • Aug 09, 2022
  • Wellbeing

Happy family on the beach during a heatwave

Summer is be the perfect time to get out of the house and spend time outside, soaking up fresh air and essential vitamin D from the sun. However, spending too much time in hot weather can be dangerous for everyone and can lead to detrimental health risks.

According to the NHS, there are around 2000 heat-related deaths every year in the UK. While the elderly, children and people with pre-existing medical conditions are most at risk, everyone can be affected by a heatwave so it’s important to know how to stay safe and protect yourself and others.

How heat affects the body

During a heatwave, the body’s reaction is to increase the blood flow to carry the heat within towards the surface. This results in sweat on the skin. As the sweat evaporates, the body starts to cool down. However, the hotter it is, the more sweat is produced by the body which can lead to dehydration. Sweat evaporation can be restricted by clothes or the humidity in the air which means the body can’t regulate its temperature properly. If the body is gaining more heat than it can lose, the body’s control mechanisms will eventually start to fail, leading to heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Who is most at risk?

Everyone is at risk of health issues when spending an extended amount of time in the sun, however, there are certain groups of people who are most at risk.

Babies and young children

Babies and young children become vulnerable as they are unable to regulate their body temperature due to reasons such as their bodies creating more heat energy and sweating less. This puts them at a higher risk of overheating in extreme temperatures which can then lead to long and short-term heat-related illnesses.

Older people

Older people, especially those aged 75 and over, can be more at risk of overheating due to several factors including slower kidney function and having chronic conditions. These factors can all impact the body’s normal response to dealing with the heat and therefore makes this category of people more susceptible to developing heat-related illnesses.

Underlying health conditions

Underlying health conditions such as heart and lung conditions, diabetes and kidney disease may have an impact on how the body responds to heat including losing more water and impacting the ability to sweat. People with dementia can be less aware of heat and therefore unable to protect themselves.  

People who consume alcohol

During a heatwave, you are more prone to dehydration because of excessive sweating. As alcohol is a diuretic, when you drink, you can lose extra fluid by sweating more and having to urinate more often. Therefore, people who drink alcohol during a heatwave are more at risk of dehydration than people who do not.

Symptoms to look out for and what you can do

Excessive exposure to heat and sun can trigger a variety of different health issues that include heatstroke and dehydration. For your safety, it is crucial to recognise the signs so you can take action:

The signs of dehydration:

  • Dry mouth and feeling thirsty
  • Feeling lightheaded or unwell
  • Tiredness
  • Darker and strong-smelling urine
  • Going to the toilet less often to urinate

The signs of dehydration in your baby or toddler include a sunken soft spot on their head, few or no tears when crying, fewer wet nappies and drowsiness.

To improve your symptoms, you should drink plenty of water.

The signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke:

  • Headache
  • Feeling dizzy and confused
  • Feeling sick
  • Loss of appetite
  • Excessive sweating
  • Pale complexion
  • Continuously feeling thirsty
  • Faster breathing
  • Cramps (in arms, legs, and stomach)

If you or someone you are with experience any symptoms relating to heat exhaustion or heatstroke after spending time in the sun, here are some things you can do to decrease the chances of becoming seriously ill:

  • Move to the shade or a cooler area (such as a room with air conditioning)
  • Lay down and raise the feet above heart level
  • Drink water
  • Apply something cool around the armpits or neck such as cold water or cold packs
  • Call 111 for less urgent concerns or 999 for urgent medical assistance

Signs of sunburn

  • Red and warm skin
  • Skin feels sore or itchy
  • Peeling skin

You can usually treat sunburn at home by drinking plenty of fluids and applying cold compresses to the skin. For more severe sunburn (blistering or swelling of the skin, high temperature, dizziness, and headaches), you should contact your GP.

What you can do to prevent becoming ill in a heatwave

With the right precautions, you can minimise the risks of heat and sun exposure and stay safe during the summer when you’re out and about. Here are some tips from Gov.uk:

  • Check the weather forecast to help you plan ahead
  • Avoid staying in the sun during the hottest part of the day (around midday)
  • Avoid heavy physical activity during hot weather
  • Spend more time in the shade than in direct sunlight
  • Apply high sun protection factor
  • Wear lightweight and light-coloured clothing and something to cover your head
  • Wear sunglasses to minimise UV exposure of the eyes
  • Consume plenty of water throughout the day
  • Avoid alcohol 
  • Look out for signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion
  • Look after those who may be more at risk – older people, babies and young children, people with health conditions, people who misuse alcohol or drugs

What to eat during a heatwave

Fruit and vegetables with high fluid content can help towards hydration levels. These include:

  • Cucumber
  • Melon
  • Strawberries
  • Lettuce
  • Celery

Key points to take away

Going outside and socialising in the sun is essential for our mental and physical wellbeing. However, staying in hot weather for too long can cause serious and even fatal consequences. Staying hydrated, wearing the right sun cream factor, and avoiding alcohol are some of the steps you can take to help you keep safe during a heatwave.

Disclaimer: The content of this website is provided for informational purposes only and does not substitute the medical advice from a healthcare professional.