What happens to your body during a heat wave
Logging a “high record” doesn’t sound like good news right now—especially when it’s referring to global temperatures.
July this year was “the hottest month ever recorded on Earth,” according to science and research magazine Scientific American. Based on analysis by the World Meteorological Organization, Copernicus Climate Change Service, and Leipzig University, July was also noted to likely be the “hottest in about 120,000 years.”
To put things into perspective, these soaring temperatures also mean more people are suffering from heat-related illnesses. The Guardian, at the start of the month, reported that there have been 25 heat-related deaths in Phoenix, Arizona, which recorded 27 days of temperatures above 43 degrees Celsius (110 degrees Fahrenheit). There have also been deaths in places with temperatures that have spiked to the 50s.
Meanwhile, more than 8,000 miles across the globe, the Philippines’ heat indices are also hitting record highs. The country’s dry months, typically around the “summer” season (April to May), logged week-long indices under a “danger” rating—ranging from 42 to 47 degrees Celsius (107 to 117 degrees Fahrenheit). Even well into August, through the wet season, Metro Manila continues to log a heat index in the 40s.
Weather conditions extending way past the “seasons” have already been noted as a mark of climate change. But as these extreme heat events become more frequent, their effects on humans also become more concerning.
The heat is being called an “invisible silent killer” because, unlike typhoons or hurricanes whose arrival and effects can easily be seen and monitored, its impacts are not as apparent.
How heat affects the body
While the human body can regulate its temperature, extreme heat will cause problems and can even become life-threatening if not addressed immediately.
As the body gets warmer under extreme heat, it will attempt to regulate or cool itself off, first by sweating, speeding up the heart, opening up the blood vessels, and pushing blood to the extremities. When hot blood gets nearer the skin, it’s easier for the heat to dissipate. But under extreme heat, it becomes more difficult for the body to do this.
As the blood gets diverted to the body’s peripheries in an attempt to cool down, there’s less to go around for the internal organs, thus limiting their receipt of oxygen and nutrients. That then leads to more problems.
Sweating and fever, along with muscle cramps, weakness, increased heart rate, pale and cold skin, and nausea may follow—and by then this means you’re already experiencing heat exhaustion.
When you experience heat exhaustion, it is best to get out of the sun to bring the temperature down. It would also be best to seek medical aid.
But if heat exhaustion is left untreated for longer, the condition can worsen. The body starts shutting down—sweating stops, the body’s temperature blows up even higher (104 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius or higher), the skin gets red and hot, then you could have trouble breathing, and may even faint or have seizures. By then, it will be considered a heat stroke, and could be deadly if not treated.
In cases of heat stroke, immediate emergency care is required.
There are two types of heat stroke: classic heat stroke, which commonly affects children, the elderly, and those with chronic diseases and occurs “at rest,” or even with the lack of strenuous activity; and there is exertional heat stroke, common among athletes, soldiers, and others who engage in strenuous activities.
Aside from these, extreme heat can also adversely affect mental health.
Extreme heat events also cause the surroundings and surfaces we interact with to heat up, which may also cause physical heat-related injuries. It has been reported that exposure to these extremely hot surfaces, such as concrete, or even everyday objects like doorknobs, gates, and seatbelts become dangerous.
In an article in The New Yorker, physician and professor Dhruv Khullar wrote that these new hazards have emerged along with the rising temperatures. “Last summer, the Arizona Burn Center-Valleywise Health treated 85 people for serious heat-related injuries. A third required ICU-level care. This year, the center admitted more than 50 such patients in July alone.
An elderly woman was scalded after her wheelchair tipped over onto concrete; a construction worker passed out and burned himself on hot equipment. A child was admitted after running barefoot onto a scorching driveway. Some patients have suffered from liver and kidney failure; others have lost limbs.”
Avoiding heat stroke
The best way to avoid getting a heat stroke is really staying indoors, in a cool, and shaded place. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends keeping room temperatures to “below 32 °C during the day and 24 °C during the night.”
Reducing the heat load indoors by closing sun-facing windows or shutters during the day and turning off artificial lighting and electrical devices also help.
Among their other recommendations are staying indoors during the hottest hours of the day, and opting to do more strenuous activities only during the cooler hours.
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But if there is no choice but to go outside, it is recommended to wear lightweight, loose clothing, and pace yourself to not overexert the body to quick exhaustion.
It’s also important to stay hydrated with water or sports drinks that can replenish salt and minerals in the body. During these extreme heat days, make sure you drink often, and not just when you’re thirsty.
Wearing sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher is also highly recommended.