Heat extremes and how to cope

Maureen Corrigan
It has been very hot this summer. Having MS means I am sensitive to high temperatures. In this article, I research extreme temperatures in an effort to better understand how to deal with the heat. There are some good tips on preventing heat problems from the Better Health Channel website. They included covering up, drinking water and taking it easy. The tips I found for keeping cool were staying inside with air conditioning if possible and using special cooling vests and clothing with gel pockets that swell.
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Maureen Corrigan on 05/02/2013
Woman holding an electric fan in front of her face

The Australian summer is back, and hotter than ever

People with certain medical conditions can be more susceptible to problems associated with exposure to heat. For example, around 70 percent of people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) experience moderate to extreme heat sensitivity. Small increases in body temperature can slow nerve conduction, making the existing symptoms of MS worse and causing new symptoms to occur suddenly and unexpectedly. A recent story in a medical journal I read described a situation in which a woman spontaneously lost her vision after lying in a hot bath for a short while. Upon exiting the hot water and cooling down, her vision returned to normal.

Extreme temperature records

The recent extremes in Victoria's weather prompted me to investigate local temperature records. The Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology website provides concise information on the extremes of our climate and detailed the following highest maximum recorded temperatures for Australia, Victoria and Melbourne:

  • Australia - 50.7°C in Oodnadatta, South Australia (2 Jan 1960)
  • Victoria - 48.8°C in Hopetoun (7 Feb 2009)
  • Melbourne - 46.8°C (7 Feb 2009)

Clearly, Australia endures some harsh temperatures over summer, but what about the rest of the world? The World Meteorological Organization, on its website under Global Weather and Climate Extremes (http://wmo.asu.edu/#global), says that the record for the world's highest temperature is 56.7°C from Furnace Creek Ranch, Death Valley, California USA in July 1913. The previous record was 58°C from El Azizia, Libya in 1922, although recent investigation by experts rejected this figure in 2012, leaving the world record at 56.7°C.

Thanks to the recent spate of hot weather, the weather bureau in Australia has adjusted its official scale for reporting temperatures. It has added 50 to 52°C and 52 to 54°C, predicting that 2013 will be the hottest year for us yet.

Keeping cool

Learning how to stay cool in these conditions is important for everyone, but as with a lot of things, prevention is better than cure. The Victorian Government Better Health Channel website (www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au) provides tips and information on coping with extreme heat:

  • Keep up fluids and drink more water
  • Stay inside to avoid exposure to direct or radiant heat
  • If you have to go outside, cover up with light loose clothing, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses 
  • Limit physical activity
  • Don't stay in your car
  • Take it easy!

To stay cool, try to keep air circulating around you and always use air conditioning where possible. If you don't have the option of air conditioning, use wet sponges or flannels to keep your body cool in addition to fans. There are also products such as cooling vests, caps, neckties and neck wraps. You can even get cooling mats and blankets for your pets. These are made from special fabrics and have gel inserts. When these garments are placed in water, the crystals become a gel and hold cool or warm temperatures for long periods of time.

A final prevention tip is to look out for others. Check on the elderly, sick or frail - people you know who may need help coping with the heat. These kinds of extreme temperatures take a toll on the human body, regardless of your level of fitness. Keeping an eye on your pets is also very important. Ensure that they have constant access to water and shade and bring them inside if possible.

If this summer is a warning of what's to come, staying cool may be more important than ever.

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