Heatwaves can happen regularly in summer but they are still a threat to the health and safety of people who are vulnerable to the extreme weather, including many people with disability.
- Heatwaves can cause exhaustion, dehydration and sometimes sickness for people with disability
- There are a number of tips to keep yourself cool at home or outside
- Planning and preparation ahead of time can help you to stay safe and cool
A heatwave is a longer period of weather which is hotter than the average temperature at that time of year. Often heatwaves across Australia can last several days and reach temperatures in the 40s, causing people to become dehydrated and exhausted.
This can lead to you becoming really sick and needing emergency care. Hundreds of Australians die every year because of heatwaves, so it’s vital you know how to stay healthy and safe.
If you have a skin disorder or a health condition leading to excess weight it can inhibit your ability to sweat and cool your body down, so you may need to be more careful about staying cool.
For people who use a wheelchair it could also be harder to stay cool without airflow across your back, while some medications also affect how your body cools itself down, or even how thirsty you are, making it more difficult to tell when you are dehydrated.
Tips for staying cool
The Council for Intellectual Disability has an easy read guide for people with intellectual disability to learn how to cope in a heatwave.
It includes three basic tips to protect your health:
- Drink lots of water and try not to drink too much alcohol, coffee, tea or soft drink
- Stay inside with the air conditioner on, if you don’t have an air conditioner at home spend time in a cool building like a shopping centre or library
- If you go outside protect yourself from the heat and sun with a hat, sunscreen and loose clothes, take water with you and tell someone where you are going
What to do when staying home
Close your doors, windows and curtains to keep the heat out, unless there is a cool breeze which will help to circulate cool air through your house.
If parts of your house are cooler than others, spend more time in the cooler rooms.
Spend time relaxing and stick to activities which don’t take much effort - like reading a book or doing a puzzle.
Eat lots of small meals or snacks rather than big meals, as your body creates heat while digesting food, and eat healthy cold foods like salad and fruit, as they have more water in them to stop you from being dehydrated.
Eating cold foods not only can give you more hydration, but also means you’re not heating up your house by using the stove or oven.
You can also wear loose fitting clothing, take cool showers, splash cool water on your face and the back of your neck, wet a cloth and put it on the back of your neck or use cool packs kept in the fridge or freezer.
How to stay cool inside
While outside, stick to the shade and wear sun safe clothing. You might like to go to the swimming pool or beach, but keep in mind sun safe behaviour the whole time - whether you are in the shade, the sun, or the water.
Even if you are in a pool, the river or the ocean, make sure you keep drinking water to stay hydrated, apply sunscreen regularly, wear sunglasses when you can and keep a hat on.
You could also carry a hand held fan, or a misting fan which sprays water as well as creating a breeze for you.
Avoid any exercise during the hottest part of the day (usually from around midday to 4pm) as this can increase your risk of overheating and dehydration.
If you use a wheelchair or mobility scooter but don’t need it for the activity you’re doing - for example if you are getting in the pool - leave it in a shady place so it doesn’t heat up.
There are also pieces of equipment which you could attach to your wheelchair to help during hot weather - like an umbrella or sun canopy and a drink bottle holder - and you can cover a black seat with a light coloured fabric to stop it from absorbing as much heat.
Some gel seat cushions for wheelchairs and scooters might also have cooling functions.
The importance of preparation
Being prepared and planning for the hot weather can help you to stay safe and comfortable.
Talk to your GP about the medications you use and whether they have any impact on your ability to stay cool - such as decreasing the amount you sweat or increasing your risk of dehydration, then make a plan for your medication in the case of a heatwave.
Have enough water, food, medication and other essentials at home so that you don’t need to leave during the heatwave.
Have a plan for what you might do if your air conditioner breaks or the power cuts out:
- Will you be able to use a battery powered fan?
- Will you be able to access water if you don’t have power?
- Where else could you go to stay cool and hydrated?
- Will you need a back up to the fridge - like an esky with ice or a generator-powered fridge?
If you can’t prepare in time, you might like to ask someone in your support network to visit the shops and buy what you need to stay cool.
Support workers could help you with planning or with tasks to help you stay cool - like making small cold meals and dressing in loose fitting clothing made of breathable material like cotton.
As your needs might increase during a heatwave, think about how you might be able to receive extra support at that time - can you use your National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) funding for more care hours, can you organise respite care or can you ask a family member or friend to spend time with you.
Symptoms of heat sickness
It is best to take proactive steps to prevent your body heating up during extreme weather, however being aware of the symptoms of heat stress can help you to stay on top of your hydration and monitor your health during a heatwave.
Signs of heat stress, which may lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke, include:
- Feeling tired
- Feeling thirsty
- Feeling confused
- Muscle pain or cramps
- Changes in skin colour
- Shallow breathing
- A rapid pulse
It is also possible to get heat rash, which will appear as red spots or marks on skin where you sweat - such as on your chest or on the backs of your knees.
The rash will be itchy and can last for up to three days, but is usually only uncomfortable and mostly harmless. If the rash lasts longer than three days, is swollen or develops blisters filled with pus you should see your doctor.
If you feel sick because of the heat contact your GP, or in an emergency call 000.
Have you got any other tips for staying cool in hot weather? Tell us in the comments below.