Handling the heat

sun through heatwave

As parts of Australia continue to swelter through January heat, stakeholders have urged the public to be aware of overheating and dehydration risks

A week after the ACT experienced a record-breaking sequence of days above 40 degrees, extreme heat persists around the country, with Canberra set for a top of 36 on Tuesday and Adelaide a top of 37.

The Bureau of Meteorology expects Melbourne to hit 41 on Friday and Adelaide to get to 44 on Thursday, and there’s little relief in sight for the ACT, with tops of 39 forecast for Friday and Saturday.

The Victorian Government has asked Victorians to pay attention to heat warnings and particularly to keep an eye on elderly people and young children.

Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos joined Victoria’s Acting Chief Health Officer Dr Brett Sutton, Ambulance Victoria and the Bureau of Meteorology to promote the Never Leave Kids in Cars and Survive the Heat campaigns.

The Labor Government’s Never Leave Kids in Cars campaign warns parents about the dangers of leaving children in hot cars where they are at great risk of life-threatening heatstroke, dehydration and organ damage.

This campaign highlights that the temperature inside a car can double within minutes in extreme conditions.

As a child’s body temperature rises three to five times faster than an adult’s, there is no safe amount of time to leave children unattended.

Between 1 September 2017 and August 31 2018, paramedics responded to 1,587 calls to people “locked in vehicles” – the majority being children aged under 13. The five local government areas with the most callouts were Casey (113), Wyndham (79), Whittlesea (69), Greater Geelong (60) and Hume (60).

Extreme heat kills more people in Australia than any natural disaster and can affect anybody, the State Government points out.

During the 2009 heatwave, the number of deaths in Victoria was 374 more than under normal conditions and almost 80% of those deaths were people over 65. During the 2014 heatwave the number of deaths increased by 167.

On a 44 degree day in January 2014, there was a 700% increase in paramedic call outs for cardiac arrests.

The Survive the Heat campaign urges Victorians to take heatwaves as seriously as they would any natural disaster.

People at the highest risk of heat exhaustion include people aged over 65, people with a pre-existing medical condition, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers and babies and young children.

And researchers at the Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute say places like Melbourne are the perfect example of extreme changes in temperature.  

After linking data with weather records, researchers overseas found that greater temperature fluctuation was associated with significantly higher rates of heart attack. Overall, heart attack risk increased by about 5% for every 9 degree fluctuation in temperature.

Daily temperature fluctuation was defined as the difference between the highest and lowest temperature recorded on the day of the heart attack.

Dr Quan Huynh said patients diagnosed with heart failure or other cardiovascular disease need to be particularly vigilant during this time of the year.

“We know in Melbourne, the weather temperature can drop or increase quickly and as much as 10 degrees in 10 minutes isn’t unusual,’’ he said.

“Research into this area will become increasingly important as concerns around climate change grow. We don’t currently understand why this happens, it is a growing area of research and one we will also be working on the Baker Institute.”

The Baker Institute’s Professor Tom Marwick also warned that for people with cardiovascular trouble hot days can be dangerous.

“Most healthy people tolerate these changes without missing a beat. People with damaged or weakened hearts, or older people whose bodies don’t respond as readily to stress as they once did, have a much harder time, and are at risk of heat stroke,” said Professor Marwick.

“Damage from a heart attack can keep the heart from pumping enough blood to get rid of heat. Hot, humid weather can be especially hard for people with heart failure, or those on the verge of it.

“The extra work for the heart, compounded by the loss of sodium and potassium and the internal flood of stress hormones, can push some people into trouble.

“If you think you are having heat-related problems, or if you see signs of them in someone else, getting to an air-conditioned space and drinking cool water are the most important things to do. If these don’t help or the symptoms persist, call your doctor or go to a hospital with an emergency department.”

Late last year, QUT’s Dr Esther Lau and Professor Lisa Nissen offered some tips for pharmacists on helping patients handle the heat. Read these tips here.

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