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This heat is no joke. (Image: Tina Tiller)
This heat is no joke. (Image: Tina Tiller)

SocietyFebruary 9, 2024

How to cope with very hot weather

This heat is no joke. (Image: Tina Tiller)
This heat is no joke. (Image: Tina Tiller)

Are you finding the sticky, humid weather this summer unbearable? Here’s what to do. 

For many people, the heat and humidity of parts of the country in the last few days would have been almost intolerable.   

Overseas, heat has been a killer.  61,000 people died of heat-related conditions in the summer of 2022 in Europe. Germany recorded over 3,000 in the first nine months of 2023. Globally, unknown numbers of people died in the heat extremes of last year.

The elderly, the very young, people with health conditions and pregnant women are the most susceptible to heat. Their body’s ability to regulate temperature is weakened or, in the case of babies, undeveloped. 

A Coroner’s report of the 2021 British Columbia heat dome fatalities found that most deaths occurred inside peoples’ homes: “People don’t die because it’s hot outside; they die because it’s hot inside”. Without special measures to get rid of the day’s heat overnight, temperature builds up, each day inside getting hotter and hotter. Warm nights not only stop the day’s heat from dissipating, they make sleep and its benefits for coping much harder.

The Coroner’s report found that the most deaths were among elderly, people with medical conditions and people who lived on their own. Deaths were particularly concentrated in low income or deprived neighbourhoods. Residents of such neighbourhoods are less likely to have heat pumps and ways to cool their home.

Mild heat stress can include heavy sweating, clammy skin, tiredness, headache and dizziness. The person may feel nauseous and faint; they may be irritable, have muscle cramps, and have concentrated yellow urine. Anyone suffering these symptoms needs to reduce body heat and rehydrate quickly. If taking a cool bath or shower is not possible, other ways to reduce heat include loosening tight clothing, sponging areas of bare skin and applying ice packs or wet cloths to armpits, neck and groin. 

To rehydrate, drink plenty of water.  Sport drinks can replace water, but not alcohol or fizzy, sugary drinks which can interfere with the body’s temperature control. 

If conditions get hotter or last for longer, the body finds it harder and harder to keep cool by sweating. The sweating stops (because the body no longer has the excess water to sweat), body temperature rises, the skin becomes hot and dry, the heart rate speeds up and the person can become dizzy, confused, nauseous and vomit. In the worst case, they have convulsions, seizures or lose consciousness.

At this point, the person is in a dangerous situation because their vital organs are under stress. They need proper medical attention. An ambulance should be called. Cooling measures should be taken while waiting for the ambulance (eg sponging bare skin, applying ice packs or wet cloths to neck, armpits and groin) and, if they are unconscious, they need to be shifted into the recovery position with mouth down and chin up (to prevent suffocation).

In most homes, it’s possible to reduce the build-up of heat inside. Air conditioners or heat pumps are ideal. Air conditioners cool in the same way as refrigerators; they suck in warm air, move it over evaporator coils in the machine and pump it out again. Heat pumps are similar to air conditioners except that they can heat as well as cool. 

Fans work by increasing air flow and thereby increasing sweat evaporation. The cooling effect of fans is usually limited to the space in front of the fan, rather than a room at large. Ceiling fans fitted to the centre of a room can have some effect, but do not actually cool the air; they simply keep it moving. Depending on the size of the room and the power of the machine, heat pumps and air conditioners can cool a whole room but they usually depend on mains power electricity to run. Fans work on electricity but can also use batteries. 

Dehumidifiers can also help to reduce the effects of heat. They take out moisture in the air so that sweating becomes more effective. Like air-conditioners and heat pumps, they need an electricity supply.

From a cost and self-sufficiency viewpoint as well as for environmental reasons, the best way to cool your home is with minimal electricity or without power.  Here are some suggestions on what to do:

  • Unless you have a strong breeze that can blow heat out of the house, close all windows and curtains and blinds from early morning for the rest of the day. The best curtains for keeping out heat are ones that are lined and reach from floor to ceiling.  Even lace curtains and ones which just cover the windows can provide some protection. DOUBLE GLAZING IS BEST OF ALL. 
  • Open all windows (and doors if possible) at night, once the air outside is cooler than the air inside. 
  • Dampen curtains at night and the air moving past the curtains will reduce the temperature in the room.
  • Put away floor covers that can trap heat, for example shag carpets.  
  • Find the coolest room in the house and make it a comfortable retreat or your main living space – it will usually be on the south side of the house and at ground level or the basement.
  • Close the doors of rooms that aren’t being used, especially if they are on the north side or the side that gets the afternoon sun.
  • Avoid cooking indoors or during the middle of the day – for example, use a barbecue or use the kitchen stove once every few days for meals that can be stored and brought out as you need them. Microwaves can cook things faster and more efficiently than stoves.
  • Reduce your use of appliances which cause heat or use them at night, for example, washers, dryers and vacuums.
  • Use light clothing and bedding.
  • If you have to go outdoors, wear light-coloured clothes that will not absorb heat.  Black and brown, dark reds, greens and blues will all feel much hotter than white or cream.  
  • Drink lots of water.  
  • Keep a damp cloth round your neck or take a shower or soak in the bath.
  • Consider planting trees that will block the sun on the north or east side of your house, and beside any outside space that you park your car.
  • Adapt your daily routine to do the active things, for example shopping or exercise,  early in the day or late in the afternoon or evening. If you can’t sleep at night and you have time in the middle of the day, go somewhere cool and rest.
  • If you still feel desperate, check out public spaces that are air conditioned, for example, supermarkets, shopping malls and libraries.

Scientists have told us that temperatures are going to continue rising for the foreseeable future. Many of the measures just noted are practical common sense, but they are also habits and ways of doing things that we will need to follow more and more in the future. They are adaptations to a changing world.

Keep going!