June 15, 2024

The health risks of extreme heat

LONDON, July 18 (Reuters) – The world is baking under extreme heat – with Asia, Europe and the United States all dealing with scorching temperatures.


Heat affects health in a number of ways.

Heat exhaustion, which includes dizziness, headache, shaking and thirst, can affect anyone, and is usually not serious, provided the person cools down within 30 minutes.

The more serious version is heatstroke, when the body’s core temperature rises above 105 degrees Fahrenheit (40.6 degrees Celsius). It is a medical emergency and can lead to long-term organ damage and death. Symptoms include rapid breathing, confusion or seizures, and nausea.


Some people are more vulnerable, including young children and the elderly, as well as people who need to stay active or are more exposed, such as the homeless.

Pre-existing conditions, including respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, as well as diabetes, can also raise the risk – and be made worse by heat.

Globally, just under half a million deaths per year are estimated to be due to excess heat, as of 2021. study in the Lancet, although data from many low-income countries is lacking. As many as 61,000 people may have died in Europe during heatwaves last summer, and there are fears of a repeat this season.

“Heat waves are a silent and invisible killer. We often don’t see the impact they have had on human health until the mortality statistics are published months later,” said climate risk and resilience researcher Professor Liz Stephens at Great Britain. University of Reading.


Air pollution also poses a health risk, with potentially serious consequences from wildfires including inflammation and tissue damage.

Heat can also lead to low birth weight and premature birth for pregnant women and babies, some studies have shown.

There are also less obvious risks. Dr Vikki Thompson, Climate Scientist, Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, said extreme heat often contributes to poorer mental health, as well as an increase in car crashes and drownings.

“Heat waves are one of the deadliest natural hazards,” she said.


Experts say more deaths occur earlier in the summer when people’s bodies haven’t had a chance to adapt.

Location matters too; people are at higher risk in places that have not experienced such heat, including parts of Europe.

However, there are limits, and people all over the world are at risk in very hot weather due to climate change, especially people who have to continue working in physical jobs, for example.

“It is more important than ever that we implement measures to limit the damage to our health,” said Dr Modi Mwatsama, head of capacity at Wellcome, a global health charity based in London. She said this ranged from providing shade and painting buildings white to investing in early warning systems for climate-sensitive infectious diseases such as cholera.


Public health agencies from Italy to the United States have issued advice on staying cool, including avoiding exertion whenever possible and staying hydrated. Workers should consider taking more breaks and changing their clothes too, scientists said.

It is also important to check on vulnerable people, including the elderly and isolated, they said.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency and requires immediate professional attention.

Reporting by Jennifer Rigby and Kate Turton; Edited by Catherine Evans

Our Standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Jen reports on health issues that affect people around the world, from malaria to malnutrition. As part of the Health & Pharma team, recent notable pieces include an investigation into healthcare for young transgender people in the UK as well as stories about the rise in measles after a routine vaccination hit by COVID, as well as efforts to make the first prevent another…

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