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Common Risks Posed By A Heatwave + Prevention Tips And Treatment

After long months of drab, dull, rainy weather we just can’t wait for those hot sunny summer days. Being able to bask in the sun is definitely a welcome change from having to put on layers of warm, waterproof clothing. Sometimes, however, the weather can get a little too hot to handle.

Soaring temperatures can be just as dangerous as sub-zero freezing temperatures. While an occasional hot day is not considered dangerous, a heatwave can pose significant health risks and can even be fatal.

What Is A Heatwave?

A heatwave is typically defined as a prolonged period of excessively high temperatures, which can last for several days or even weeks. In the UK, the timeline is set at 3 consecutive days. If temperatures are expected to reach or exceed a certain threshold – around 30°C during the day – it is considered a heatwave and heatwave warnings are issued. The exact threshold temperature may vary depending on location.

Heatwave warnings are specifically issued to remind residents of the area to take the necessary precautions to minimise the risks associated with excessively high temperatures.

Common Risks Associated With Heatwaves

A heatwave can get dangerous very quickly if you’re not careful and if you ignore the signs. These are some of the more common risks posed by heatwaves:


When temperatures soar, we tend to perspire more than usual, which can cause our bodies to lose water and essential electrolytes. Even the lightest activity that you would usually perform every day can cause you to break into a sweat when it’s hot. Losing excessive amounts of water from the body can cause symptoms such as headaches, fatigue, and dizziness.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion takes the risks of dehydration to the next level. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures combined with dehydration can impede your body’s ability to cool down sufficiently. This can cause heat exhaustion, which is manifested by symptoms such as profuse sweating, headache, dizziness, and confusion.


Ignoring the symptoms of heat exhaustion can cause your body temperature to rise above 40°C. This can lead to heatstroke, which is a life-threatening condition with symptoms such as seizures or loss of consciousness. In extreme cases, it can also result in organ failure.

Breathing Difficulties

Excessive heat and humidity can cause breathing difficulties, especially for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma. High temperatures can also increase air pollution levels, which can exacerbate respiratory symptoms.


Although sunburn is a common occurrence during a heatwave, it is not associated directly with higher temperatures. Sunburn is caused by exposure to sunlight during the peak hours. It’s just the longer sunlight light increases the risks of sunburn, which can cause redness, pain, and peeling of the skin. Excessive sunlight exposure without any protection also increases the risk of skin cancer.

Who’s Most At Risk During A Heatwave?

A heatwave can affect anyone regardless of sex, age, and other factors. However, there are certain groups that are more vulnerable. According to the NHS, those vulnerable to the risks of a heatwave may include:

  • Older individuals, especially those over 75 and female.
  • Individuals suffering from long-term or serious medical conditions such as diabetes, heart or lung conditions, kidney disease, mental health conditions or Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Babies and very young children.
  • Older individuals who live on their own or in a care home.
  • Bedridden individuals.
  • Individuals who take multiple medications.
  • Outdoor workers.
  • The homeless.

6 Tips For Coping In A Heatwave

There are a few very important things you can do to ride the heatwave out and do everything you need to do while staying safe. None of these coping tips is particularly difficult. However, for these tips to be effective, the important thing is to pay heed to them and put them into practice.

  1. Stay indoors out of the direct heat as much as possible or at least during the hottest parts of the day, usually between 11 am and 3 pm. If you do have to go outside during these hours, make sure to wear sunscreen and a hat and stay in the shade.
  2. When outdoors, avoid strenuous activities and exercise. These will cause your body temperature to rise and increase perspiration, leading to dehydration and heat exhaustion quickly.
  3. Don’t forget to stay hydrated. Carry a bottle of water everywhere you go and sip from it regularly to stay hydrated. Don’t rely on thirst to remind you to drink water. Dehydration can set in before you recognise the symptoms. Electrolyte drinks are a great alternative to plain water especially in case of excessive sweating as they help replenish lost salts and minerals.
  4. Wear light-coloured, loose-fitting, long-sleeved clothing made from breathable fabrics such as cotton to help stay cool. Avoid the temptation to wear sleeveless tops when outdoors. They may keep you cool but they don’t offer adequate protection against the harsh rays of the sun.
  5. Cool your body down with cold foods and cold drinks. Have a cool shower. Sprinkle cool water on your skin and clothes several times a day. Avoid hot drinks, caffeine, and alcohol, which tend to increase body temperature. Also avoid sugary drinks that do your body no good, regardless of temperature.
  6. Keep your home cool. Something as simple as closing curtains and blinds during the day and opening windows at night can be very effective at keeping your home cool. This is because closing the windows during the day traps the cool night air inside while keeping out the hot daytime air. Opening the windows at night sends the stale indoor air out and allows the fresh cool night air to come indoors. In addition, you could also use a fan or air conditioning.

What To Do To Cool Down Quickly

Despite taking all precautions, a fierce heatwave could still trigger symptoms of dehydration, heat exhaustion or heatstroke. If you experience any of the symptoms, taking these steps immediately can help prevent them from getting worse.

Get indoors, preferably in a cool area such as an air-conditioned room. If there isn’t any place you go indoors, get to a shady spot outside and stay there awhile.

Drink plenty of water or electrolyte drinks to rehydrate and replenish lost salts and minerals.

Soak a dry hand towel or handkerchief in cool water and apply as a cool compress on your face, neck, and head to cool down quickly. When you get home, take a cool bath or shower to lower your body temperature even more.

If your symptoms persist or worsen, get to the nearest A&E department and seek urgent medical attention.

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