According to writer Roman Payne, sunlight can be regarded as “the most precious gold to be found on Earth.” Without a doubt, that holds true in a country like sunny, cheerful Australia. But on the flip side, too much of this precious commodity can prove dangerous. In 2018, the Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre and the Bureau of Meteorology posited that heat waves are Australia’s deadliest natural hazard. This fact was confirmed by the Australia Medical Association of Queensland’s Council of General Practice: heat stress kills more Australians than any other natural disaster, and more than 500 people die of heat stress every year.
Heat stress occurs when a person’s body cannot cool itself back to a healthy temperature of 37 °C. The drier and hotter the season is, the more risk you have of incurring heat stress—and possibly attaining a heat stroke, which is even worse. The best approach to countering heat stress is by equipping yourself and your loved ones against it: with necessary materials, such as weather-appropriate clothing and sunscreen, and necessary knowledge, such as from a fast-tracked first aid training course in Perth. To begin, here’s our briefer on everything you need to know about heat stress.
What Causes Heat Stress, and What Happens in Bad Cases?
Several ordinary happenstances can cause heat stress. Five of the most common ones you’d encounter in Australia are:
- Being dehydrated. The likeliest cause of heat stress is dehydration, or when the human body doesn’t have enough water in it to function properly. You can become dehydrated if you don’t drink enough water, if you consume too much alcohol or caffeine, if you’re overexerting during exercise, if you’re experiencing severe diarrhoea or fits of vomiting, or if you’re taking medications that are diuretics (increasing the production of your urine). These can hamper your ability to sweat, which is how your body naturally cools itself from heat.
- Exposing one’s body during the hottest parts of the day. Heat stress may also be caused by exposure to the sun in the hours that its ultraviolet rays are the strongest, between 11:00AM and 3:00PM. If you go out at these hours without sufficiently protecting your skin, you may also increase your risk of getting skin cancer.
- Being stuck in hot, crowded, or restrictive situations. The environment is also a big contributor to heat stress. You could get hit by a nasty heat wave if you’re working in a poorly ventilated room for an extended period of time. Alternately, you could suffer heat stress at a very tight and crowded event like a rave concert or big sporting event.
- We also wouldn’t rule out heat stress being a side effect of occurrences like bushfires. Though a single bushfire can be extinguished in minutes, it can smoulder for days after. The radiant heat caused by bushfires can instigate heat stress and other harmful conditions.
A deadly consequence of heat stress is heat stroke. Heat strokes happen when the body’s core temperature hits above 40.5 °C, causing its internal systems to shut down and fail. If the body’s temperature is not reduced quickly enough, the vital organs (such as the heart, liver, kidney, and muscles) can sustain major tissue damage. Heat strokes call for immediate medical attention; if someone in your vicinity has suffered a heat stroke, aid must be supplied as soon as possible.
Who Are Vulnerable to Experiencing Heat Stress?
Persons who are especially vulnerable to heat stress are the following:
- The elderly. Persons over 65 years are highly susceptible to heat stress because their immune systems are frailer and their mobility is no longer at 100%.
- Babies and toddlers. Children of very young age are also vulnerable to suffering heat stress. It is very important to keep them hydrated and shielded from the hot sun.
- Young children and teenagers. Older children, such as preteens and teenagers, often love to be active in the sun. However, they sweat less than adults do and absorb heat rapidly in hot weather. Therefore, it’s wise to keep a close watch even on older children.
- Pregnant women and nursing mothers. The bodies of women who are pregnant or nursing are naturally more sensitive to heat. In a situation as delicate as pregnancy or nursing stage, it’s best for women to keep as cool and hydrated as possible.
- People with preexisting medical conditions. Those who are ill with heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and other such illnesses are quite vulnerable to heat stress. Protection from the sun should be part of their holistic healing and wellness.
What Are the Common Signs and Symptoms of Heat Stress?
You should be aware of both the signs and symptoms that define heat stress. Signs are external manifestations that you can perceive on yourself or on others. Some of these common signs of heat stress are:
- paler skin than normal;
- abnormal levels of sweat (excessive sweating, or too little sweat), and,
- dark-coloured urine.
On the other hand, symptoms are subjective indicators, or felt exclusively by the person experiencing the condition. Some of the most well-known symptoms of heat stress are:
- feeling excessively tired or lethargic;
- experiencing severe headaches or migraines;
- dizziness and/or lightheadedness;
- feeling thirsty;
- feeling faint;
- muscle cramps.
Any combination of these signs and symptoms could be indicative of heat stress. When in doubt, speak out—and seek immediate relief.
Tips on Avoiding Heat Stress
Ultimately, dealing with heat stress should anchor on the avoidance of it. Take a preemptive approach to battling Australia’s notorious heat, and make sure to do all of the following:
- Check the ventilation systems in your home and workplace. Make sure that all ventilation devices, such as electric fans and air conditioners, are clean and in working order. Try to spend as much time as you can indoors, where there is sufficient cooling and airflow.
- Tune into radio and television reports. Listen to your local weatherman when they say it’s going to be a very hot day out. Schedule the time you’ll spend outside accordingly.
- Keep hydrated. Carry a refillable water bottle on your person always, and drink water at regular intervals (not only when you’re parched with thirst). In contrast, avoid drinks with high sugar, caffeine, or alcohol content.
- Apply sunscreen. Be generous in lathering sunscreen onto your skin, even when you are indoors. It’s recommended that you re-layer sunscreen every 1 or 2 hours. Choose the type that states itself to be water-resistant, broad-spectrum (capable of withstanding both ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays), and with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
- Wear heat-protective clothing. In addition to sunscreen, use appropriate clothing to protect your body. Some key examples are wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses that can block out 99% to 100% of all UVA and UVB rays, clothing that’s tested for a high UV protection factor (UPF), and neck scarves or bandannas.
- Keep a list of updated emergency contacts. Compile a list of important numbers—such as those of your city’s hospital or fire department—and tack them up in a place that everyone can see them, such as on your refrigerator or bulletin board. Make sure everyone knows where to look and who to call in case someone goes down with a case of heat stress.
With this info on hand, we hope you can beat the heat and enjoy safe and memorable moments out in the Australian sun. Cheers!