How fast can a heatwave kill you?

A heatwave is sweeping the nation and Australians are being urged to stay cool and safe over the next few days. The heatwave started in Western Australia, where residents are today returning to bushfire-ravaged homes. Now the weather front is moving to the south eastern states of the country, with Melbourne expected to reach 43 degrees later today. The south eastern states are expecting temperatures to remain around 40 degrees until late Friday, the hottest run of temperatures seen in this area since just before the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009. Melbourne has not experienced such extreme heat since the early 1900s.

The Victorian Department of Health has issued its first ‘heat health’ alert of the summer. The elderly, the frail and those with pre-existing medical conditions are at greatest risk of heat-related disease. The last time the south eastern states experienced a similar heatwave, 370 people died from heat related illness. During this period there was a 25 per cent increase in ambulance callouts, so ambulance services in these states have been undertaking preparations to cope with expected increase in cases of heat-related illness.

Victorian Government Health Minister David Davis is urging citizens to use their common sense and stay cool. “Obviously the elderly are at risk and those living alone or having a disability or who are otherwise unwell will be particularly vulnerable.”

Heatwaves can affect anybody. Illnesses caused by heat range from heat cramps to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, a condition which can be fatal. Heat may also worsen the condition of someone with a pre-existing health problem, such as heart disease.

In order to combat the heatwave, the Department of Health Victoria website suggests that you:

  • keep cool
  • drink plenty of water
  • stay out of the sun
  • look after yourself and others.

If you live in a poorly insulated building with no air conditioning, it is possible for the inside of your home to become almost 10 degrees hotter inside than out. Be aware of your living conditions and, if you are worried, be sure to stay with a friend who has air conditioning until the heatwave has passed. There is usually only a few degrees difference between the temperature being safe and dangerously hot, so it is also important to be aware of your own body and your surrounds.

Firefighters have also warned Australians to get their airconditioners checked, as at least 41 fires have been triggered by ageing airconditioners in the past two years. The heatwave is likely to put pressure on cooling units which have been left idle for months, so if you have an evaporative air conditioner, especially if it lives on the roof of your house where it is exposed to the elements, be sure to get it checked regularly.

Find out more about the situation in Western Australia.

Hear what Victorian Government Health Minister David Davis has to say about staying safe during a heatwave.

No matter where you are in Australia, stay on top of extreme weather warnings at the Bureau of Meteorology website.

Opinion: Surviving the heat

It’s all well and good to tell Australians to turn their well-maintained air conditioners on and stay cool, but what about those of us without the luxury of air conditioning? What can you do to ensure you and your loved ones stay safe during a heatwave?

The first step is to make a list of all the people you know who may be in danger. This includes people who live alone, in poor conditions, or those with pre-existing illnesses. Especially consider those people who are unlikely to seek help for themselves. Give the people on your list a call, and find out how they plan to stay cool and safe until the cool change comes through in a few days.

Next, prepare your home. It is a good idea to close the curtains or blinds to help stop the sun from heating up your house or apartment. The cooler you can keep your house at the beginning of a heatwave, the longer it will take to heat up. Hot air rises, so if you live in a two-storey home consider moving downstairs for a few days.

Water can be one of the simplest ways to cool down – try putting your feet in a bucket of cool water, draping a cool wet towel over the back of your neck or carrying a spray bottle to mist yourself with water from time to time.

If you don’t have air conditioning yourself, avoid the hottest parts of the day by visiting a public building. Libraries, cinemas and shopping centres are all usually well air conditioned.

In the event that you realise you or someone you know may be suffering from a heat-related health emergency, it is important to call 000 and explain your situation.

And finally, don’t forget that pets also suffer when the temperature rises, so be sure to make sure they have plenty to drink and a cool place to get away from the heat.

What about you? What are your tips for surviving a heatwave? After weeks of hot weather our Western Australian readers are experts in getting through a hot spell, so why not share your knowledge in the comments below?