A warm sunny summer day

Climate change promises to bring with it longer, hotter summers to many places on the planet. This June has been very, very hot, more than usual, and a real heat wave has been making life difficult, even by the sea shore, in the Algarve.

The risk of heat-related health problems is a rising reality. When sustained heat waves hit a region, health consequences can be serious, from heat exhaustion to sunstroke, major organ damage and even death.

As temperatures rise for longer periods of time, above our bodies’ own healthy internal temperature, health suffers with severe damaging consequences.

Heat waves

Heat events or “heat waves” occur when weather conditions combine to create higher-than-normal temperatures and/or humidity levels over a period of several days.

Heat affects the body’s ability to regulate its temperature and it can become overworked if exposed to heat for too long. This can lead to dehydration, heat exhaustion, other serious illnesses or even death.

While the health risks related to heat are higher for certain groups, such as older adults, young children, people taking certain medications and people with chronic conditions, everyone is potentially at risk. Fortunately, most heat-related illnesses can be prevented or treated if you are aware of the risks and symptoms.

Heat stroke (sun stroke) is the most serious type of heat illness and requires urgent medical attention. During heat stroke, a person will have a core body temperature that is above 40°C (105°F).

The longer a person’s body temperature is above 40°C (105°F), the greater the likelihood of permanent effects, or death.

The impact of extreme, sustained heat

We do not know, no one knows, what is the hottest temperature a healthy human can tolerate.

Humans cope with hot weather by perspiring and breathing but, if you have tremendously high temperature and high humidity, a person will be sweating but the sweat will not be drying on the skin. That is why it is not just heat, but the combination of heat and humidity that matters. This combination results in a number called the “apparent temperature” or “real feel”.

The other major factor that causes both mortality and morbidity is the temperature in the evening. When the temperature remains elevated overnight, there is an increase in deaths.

When a person is exposed to heat for a very long time, the systems in the human body that enable it to adapt to heat become overwhelmed and the first thing that shuts down is the ability to sweat. We know that when perspiration is dried by the air, there is a cooling effect on the body so once a person stops perspiring it is easy and fast to move from heat exhaustion to heat stroke.

As the body temperature increases very rapidly, there is a broad impact on the central nervous and circulatory systems, as well as on many organs such as the kidneys.

Air conditioning and fans

The number-one factor that ameliorates death from heat is access to air conditioning. 

Fans do not work to prevent overheating in very hot temperatures … they actually make it worse, like a convection oven. Blowing hot air on people heats them up rather than cools them down.

Heat problems in present times

Excessive heat has always been a problem. There is a history over hundreds of years of people dying of heat.

People are living progressively more to older ages, are more urban now than ever and are also more isolated than they have been in the past history of the human species. In big cities, the intense crowding can combine with what is called the heat island effect. An urban heat island (UHI) is an urban area or metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities. Waste heat generated by energy usage is a secondary contributor.

For climate change scientists, the thing that they are most comfortable predicting is the increase of the duration and intensity of heat waves in many parts of the world.

Most people don’t realise how deadly heat can be. Hundreds of people die each year as a result of the effects of heat. In contrast to the visible, destructive and violent nature of some other natural events, heat is a “silent killer”.

This is what a warm, sunny, summer day can do to us, but by being wise we can benefit from the many positive things the summertime can bring us and avoid serious problems.

Also, adopting global attitudes to control climate change is important as this will affect the future of humanity.

Man should never think that Nature can be controlled. In the end, Nature always wins.

Best health wishes,
Dr. Maria Alice

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Dr Maria Alice is a consultant in General and Family Medicine. General Manager/Medical Director – Luzdoc International Medical Service / Medilagos. Medical Director – Grupo Hospital Particular do Algarve