Heatwaves: Helpful Tips

As we head into the official start of summer and the heat ramps up, Australians are being urged to heed health warnings.

While much of the focus in recent years has been about how to combat and prepare for the devastation that bushfires can bring, there is less dialogue out there on a far deadlier and increasingly more regular killer- heatwaves.

Heatwaves kill far more people than natural disasters like bushfires, cyclones and floods. Adequate preparation is essential, especially for people at high risk: the elderly, babies, young children, people with health and mobility problems.

To hit the official criteria for a heatwave, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) requires “three days or more of high maximum and minimum temperatures that are unusual for that location”

This article will provide helpful tips on what to do before, during and after a heatwave.

Before and during a heatwave

Stay hydrated

Drink two to three litres of water each day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Avoid alcohol and caffeine.

Dress light

Lighter clothing helps your body stay cool. Light-coloured clothing reflects heat and sunlight.

Check on family, friends, neighbours

Keep a close eye on those most at risk, like the sick, the elderly and the young. Do this at an arranged time at least twice a day.

If you or those close to you are suffering heat stress, call for help immediately

Symptoms of heat stress include extremely heavy sweating, headache and vomiting, confusion, swollen tongue.

Stay out of the sun

Take shelter. If you need to be out in the sun, wear a shirt, hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. Sunburn will affect your body’s ability to cope with the heat.

Get your home ready

Draw your curtains, blinds and awnings at the start of the day to keep as much sun out of your home as possible.

Seek air conditioning

If you don’t have air conditioning at home, spend the day somewhere that does, like a library, cinema or shopping centre. If you do have an air conditioner at home, make sure it has been serviced.

Fans will also help you stay cool.

Look after your pets

Make sure your pets have plenty of shade and enough cool water to last the entire day. Putting ice cubes in their bowl will help keep their water cool for longer. Check on them regularly.

Don’t leave children or pets in parked vehicles

Ever. For any period of time.


After a heatwave

You should continue to check on family, friends and neighbours, particularly those most at risk.

It’s also important that you keep drinking water regularly, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Also, be careful around trees — they often drop limbs when it is hot.


Signs of heat stress

Learn the signs of heat stress, heat exhaustion and/or heat stroke so you can intervene early.

Symptoms include:

  • headache
  • muscle cramps
  • general exhaustion
  • weakness
  • dizzy spells


Emergency services

Agencies work together to issue alerts for heatwaves, so the agency issuing the alerts will vary.

Be on the lookout for alerts related to heat health (generally issued by the chief health officer), extreme heat or about transport disruptions.

The Bureau of Meteorology now forecasts heatwaves between the start of November and the end of March using maps showing colour-coded heatwave severity for the previous two three-day periods and the next five three-day periods.

Your local doctor, hospital or health professional is a source of advice if in doubt.

All life-threatening situations should be reported by calling triple-0.


Categorising heatwaves

Heatwave Severity
Low-intensityThe level of heat expected is unusual, but injury to people is not generally expected unless inappropriate activities are conducted or sensible precautions are not undertaken
SevereVulnerable people are at risk of injury
ExtremeLikely to cause impact across multiple areas such as infrastructure, transport, energy, agriculture and both healthy and vulnerable people are at risk of injury


We must all plan ahead

Evidence suggest that the frequency of heatwaves in Australia is increasing.

Sudden peaks in air-conditioning use can create the risk of overloading electricity grids and prompting blackouts, so it’s important to think about how you can stay cool without power.

Some easy ways to stay safe include tuning into heatwave and emergency warnings by listening to radio broadcasts or searching emergency websites.

Simple measures, like rescheduling outdoor activities to cooler parts of the day, closing curtains and blinds and staying indoors are always sensible.

Research has shown that elderly people may be particularly reluctant to use air conditioners, but if your household contains vulnerable people it’s important to use every cooling option available.

It may be possible for some people to use an app or timer to turn on their air conditioners during the afternoon to cool their house, then turn it off after 6:00pm to avoid contributing to peak demand.

If you have friends or family who are elderly, sick or very young, make sure to check in on them. Consider selecting a cooler place, like a shopping centre or library, you can visit during peak temperatures.

Unfortunately, deadly heatwaves are part of Australia’s summer, and it’s likely they will worsen.

Planning ahead can literally be a life saver.

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