Soaring temperatures increase heat-related risks

Summer has arrived early this year in Kuwait; it announced its arrival on 1 June with a record 49 degree C temperature, more than four degrees higher than the average for this time of the year. But Kuwait is not an exception; higher than normal temperatures have been recorded in many cities around the world. Higher than usual temperatures in the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, during this year’s annual Hajj pilgrimage in June, led to over 1,300 people dying from heat-related causes.

Although summers are associated with an increase in temperatures, weather experts say that continued global warming and climate change will likely lead to the world experiencing earlier and longer summers with higher temperatures. In addition to the warnings by climate and meteorological scientists, health experts caution that increasing summer temperatures could also lead to a surge in heat-related, as well as other health risks.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), during the 2000–2019 period, around 489,000 heat-related deaths occurred each year, with 45 percent of these in Asia and 36 percent in Europe. In Europe alone in the summer of 2022, an estimated 61,672 heat-related excess deaths occurred. Health experts point out that it is critical for everyone to understand the health risks that can come with extreme heat and take precautionary measures.

The negative health impacts of heat are predictable and largely preventable with specific public health and multi-sectoral policies and interventions, as well as by preventive measures taken by individuals. To raise public awareness on the harm that high heat can have on the body, and to help prepare for what could be warmer summers in the years ahead, here we publish some of the ways that heat increases risks to specific organs of the body, and also share insights on how to stay cool during the warmer summers ahead.

Temperature extremes affect health by compromising the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature. Loss of internal temperature control can result in various illnesses, including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and hyperthermia from extreme heat events. Temperature extremes related to heat can also worsen chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, cerebrovascular disease, and diabetes-related conditions.

Specific sections of the population are at a higher risk of experiencing health issues in hot weather. These include infants and young children, elderly people, pregnant women, and people with chronic health conditions, as well as those working outdoors in high temperatures. Infants and young are especially vulnerable as their bodies cannot regulate body temperature, and they cannot request or access fluids on their own. The elderly, in particular those with underlying health conditions, are also at increased risk.

But, no matter what your age, no one is immune to health risks from heat, and understanding the symptoms and early signs of heat related illness can help protect yourself, and anyone around you who may be at a higher risk, from more severe health outcomes. Some of the most common health risks that can increase when temperatures are higher include:

Migraine attacks: Data indicates that migraine attacks affect 12 to 15 percent of the general population, and the effects can be debilitating. Heat adds to the inflammatory effects that can prolong migraines, moreover, in higher temperatures, people may be dehydrated which decreases the ability of their bodies to ward off a migraine attack.

Migraines should not be confused as ‘severe headaches’, even though throbbing headaches are a symptom of migraine. Other signs of migraine include heightened sensitivity to light and sound, irritability, seeing odd shapes or hearing things ahead of a migraine, nausea, and dizziness.

Heart attacks: This is another risk that increases with rising temperature. Research published in 2023 suggested that cardiovascular disease deaths caused by heat could surge by an estimated 162 percent by mid-century (2036-2065). Heart attacks occur when blood flow to the heart is impaired.

When we are exposed to heat and especially temperatures higher than our body temperature, the heart has to work a lot harder to pump the blood out toward the skin to allow for sweating and other cooling mechanisms that the body utilizes to protect from heat. The increased work-load on the heart can reduce blood supply and lead to heart attacks and other heart problems in those at risk.

Symptoms of a heart attack could include pain or pressure in the chest, arm pain, shortness of breath, nausea, lightheadedness. If you are anyone you witness is experiencing these symptoms call the emergency medical services or seek the nearest medical facility.

Stroke: Another heart ailment that could arise from higher heat is stroke, a condition where blood flow to the brain is suddenly interrupted. A 2020 study indicated that weather conditions, including high temperatures, are becoming a novel stroke risk factor. The authors noted that there can be a lag period of one to six days between weather exposure and stroke.

Similar to the cause for a heart attack, extreme heat puts additional stress on the body, which can lead to an increased incidence of stroke, especially among the elderly and those with other risk factors such as high blood pressure.

Symptoms include weakness of arms or legs, especially on one side, vision changes, facial droop, slurred speech, difficulty walking or feeling off balance.

Heat-stroke: Yet another heat-related risk that increases with an uptick in temperatures is heat stroke. Heat-stroke should not be confused with stroke or heat exhaustion, but the three are related. Heat stroke is when your body overheats due to surrounding heat and the core body temperature rises to over 40 degrees C. This particularly impacts those working outdoors in high temperatures. Heatstroke is a medical emergency, and usually includes symptoms such as confusion, altered behavior, a change in speech, and even seizures.

Heat exhaustion: This is your body’s warning sign that it is overheating. Symptoms like headache, dizziness, and nausea signal the need to cool down and rehydrate with fluids and electrolytes. If you are working outdoors and feel symptoms of heat exhaustion, seek shade immediately, take a rest, apply cool compresses, and rehydrate with fluids, but avoid caffeine drinks that can make dehydration worse.

Kidney disease: This condition affects millions of people around the world, and a research in 2022 suggested a significant association between kidney disease-related emergency room visits and extreme heat exposure. The study, which is based on more than a million kidney disease-related emergency room visits in New York from 2005 to 2013, showed that there was a stronger association between increased heat and visits by people with acute kidney injuries, kidney stones, and urinary tract infections.

The kidneys help our body regulate fluid. But with excessive heat leading to excessive sweating, in addition to the other stressors on the body, kidney problems can worsen. Additionally, kidneys need fluids to function, and higher heat can lead to dehydration which reduces fluids available to kidneys.

Higher or lower blood pressure: Another health risk from increased high heat is that blood pressure can become too low or too high. As you sweat more heavily in higher temperatures, your body loses fluids and blood volume which can lead to a drop in blood pressure. In addition, dehydration’s strain on the kidneys can also decrease blood pressure, especially in dehydrated people. Symptoms include dizziness and lightheadedness.

On the flip side, some people may experience increased blood pressure as heat rises, as the body has to work harder to circulate blood to try to keep cool and allow for sweating and evaporation that is needed so that the body temperature does not get elevated, as can happen in heat strokes. High blood pressure can be asymptomatic but could also trigger headaches and dizziness.

Health experts offer the following guidelines to stay cool as temperatures rise.

  • Know your risk for heat-related health issues
  • Remain hydrated, and remember that fluid intake depends on various factors, including age and health, pregnancy, and lactation status, so it is important to stay hydrated according to your condition.
  • Make sure to drink two to three cups of water before stepping out in the heat
  • Avoid outdoor physical exertion if the temperature is over 34 degrees C
  • Seek shade and wear protective clothing, like hats, when outdoors
  • Use fans, misters, or an air-conditioned environment if available
  • Watch out for signs of heat-related and other illness
  • Seek medical care promptly if you are concerned

If you are feeling dizzy, weak, nauseous, or have a headache, get out of the heat, drink lots of fluids, and use a wet cloth or an ice pack. If that does not seem to work, call your doctor. If you or someone you know is experiencing an altered mental status, call emergency health services.

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