Impact of heat on individual and public health
The long periods of heat during the summer have a direct impact on health, with certain groups of people being particularly vulnerable. But who is part of these risk groups, what is the best way to protect themselves and what consequences should policies draw from this in the interest of public health?
Professor of Environmental Medicine Dr. Claudia Traidl-Hoffmann from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Augsburg explains which groups of people are particularly exposed to long periods of heat, what you can personally do to survive heat waves and what consequences politicians should draw from this.
For whom is the heat particularly dangerous?
The lengthening of heat periods is one of the consequences of climate change which has a direct impact on our health. It increases the risk of dehydration, heat stroke, sunstroke and heat exhaustion.
According to Prof. Dr. Traidl-Hoffmann the elderly, infants and young children as well as people with a history of illness.
“But healthy and fit people are also at risk, namely underestimating the danger,” says Traidl-Hoffmann. Time and time again, people are brought to the emergency room who, despite the high temperatures, play intensive sports, mow the lawn for hours or do heavy work outside in the scorching sun.
“The human body, however fit and healthy it may be, cannot cool down indefinitely – common sense is in order here”, emphasizes the doctor. And luckily, there are a few simple steps that can help.
What should you watch out for when it’s hot?
First, temperatures in unconditioned living and working rooms should be kept as low as possible. Ventilate at night to let fresh air in and close windows and, if necessary, blinds during the day to keep the heat out, that’s simple advice from Prof. Traidl-Hoffmann.
In addition, we must be prepared to avoid physical exertion under the midday sun. It is not without reason that people in European countries with higher temperatures take a nap. The expert warns that strenuous activities should not be done in the blazing midday heat and sports should only be done in the early morning or late evening.
In order to avoid dehydration, the quantities to drink must be the subject of particular attention in hot weather. “Drink enough, preferably a glass of water every hour,” recommends Traidl-Hoffmann. Water or unsweetened teas are best suited.
When it comes to nutrition, light meals with lots of fruits and vegetables are ideal, while fatty foods tend to be more of a burden. Salty things, like pretzel sticks, can also help restore electrolyte balance after sweating a lot.
According to the environmental doctor, lukewarm showers or a spray mist on the skin can also provide cooling. The evening shower can also make it easier to fall asleep when the temperature is high.
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Additional heat measures needed
However, individual measures quickly reach their limits, especially if it can be assumed that extreme heat phases in summer will probably be the norm in the future due to climate change.
Here, it is also important to protect the population through more ambitious measures, such as appropriate emergency plans or urban planning adjustments to mitigate the effects of climate change. But how prepared is Germany so far for the long heat waves?
At the moment we are not yet prepared for the next round, says Traidl-Hoffmann. In France, for example, the population reacted after the summer heat wave of 2003 and implemented plans which now protect the population globally in the event of a heat wave.
“Everyone knows what to do if the worst comes to the worst, and the number of heat-related deaths has dropped dramatically as a result,” says Traidl-Hoffmann. However, Germany is not ready yet and the persistent heat this year caught us off guard.
According to the expert, it seems that in this country we still do not want to believe that it is hot here, even very hot in the summer. “The danger is still underestimated, in some cases by the medical profession”, reports Traidl-Hoffmann.
On the other hand, there has also been a lot of movement and she is currently working on creating a heat protection plan for the Free State of Bavaria, for example. Last but not least, the numerous reports bring the emergency closer to the people.
Insufficiently prepared institutionally and individually
But “for the moment we are neither institutionally nor individually sufficiently prepared or protected (and) dramatic scenes could result”, warns the environmental doctor.
When asked what the policy should do, the expert replies that a plan is needed when it comes to heat protection. Everyone should know what to watch out for when it’s hot – at school, at home, in doctors’ surgeries, nursing homes or as mayor.
“Where do the elderly live in attic apartments in the municipality? Who needs to be taken to cooler places? When will there simply be no more national youth games? », cites the expert as possible questions of everyday life.
However, many other measures can only be implemented in the medium and long term. This also applies to converting cities into green and sustainable places that mitigate or avoid the so-called “heat island effect”.
Last but not least, it is essential that the prevention of emissions and the respect of climate objectives are now priorities. “It’s not ‘just’ about the polar bear anymore, it’s been about us for a long time,” says Traidl-Hoffmann. (fp)
Author and source information
This text corresponds to the specifications of the specialized medical literature, medical guidelines and current studies and has been verified by health professionals.
University of Augsburg: Chaleur – what to do? (published August 1, 2022), uni-augsburg.de
This article contains general advice only and should not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment. It cannot substitute a visit to the doctor.