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NHS HIGHLAND: How do we stay healthy in a heatwave?

By Dr Tim Allison

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Plenty of cold drinks required during a heatwave.
Plenty of cold drinks required during a heatwave.

I would like us to think for a few minutes about staying healthy in a heatwave.

This may come as a surprise since we are not familiar with soaring temperatures, days of cloudless blue skies and water shortages. However, that is largely the point of this.

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We are not likely to be familiar with long periods of hot weather so should one occur, we may not be prepared. Perhaps when you are reading this it will be cold and raining outside, but there have been recent long sunnier spells, and the impact of climate change is likely to produce hotter weather.

Also, for those of us fortunate enough to be able to travel to hotter parts of the world for a holiday on the beach or to watch Scotland play in the European football championships, it is even more important to be aware of how to look after ourselves in hot weather. In Australia there has been a successful and memorable campaign to reduce the risk of skin cancer called slip, slap, slop: slip on a shirt, slap on a hat and slop on sun cream. That is a good start, but we can do more.

As well as the risk from sunburn, a heatwave can lead to dehydration from not drinking enough water, overheating and heat exhaustion or heat stroke.

Heat can affect anyone’s health, but some people are more vulnerable. These include people aged over 75, those who live on their own or in a care home, people with long-term conditions or on some medications. Others can find it hard to keep cool including babies and the very young and people who are bed bound.

Should we experience prolonged hot weather, we should look out for the welfare of those who are more vulnerable and also know what to do to reduce the risk for ourselves or others.

It is important to try to stay in the shade and minimise time spent out in the middle of the day. We should also try to keep living spaces cool and one way to do that in very hot weather is to keep windows closed during the day and open at night when the outside temperature has gone down.

Using room thermometers is a good idea especially if people staying in a room are more vulnerable. Since dehydration is a particular risk, we should ensure that we have plenty of cold drinks and it may be helpful to have cool showers.

It is best to avoid caffeine, hot drinks or alcohol, including when either celebrating or commiserating with the performance of the national team.

If we do have an unexpectedly hot summer, I hope that we will all enjoy the opportunity to get out, but I also hope that a few extra precautions will help us stay healthy.

Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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