The weather – ever a hot topic in small conversation but, with temperatures hitting the 30s now is the time to make it part of a serious conversation. When it’s too hot for too long there are health risks and while you crank up the AC levels in your GP practice it’s also good to crank up awareness levels
When a heatwave hits, GP practices may see an influx of patients with related symptoms. So what should front-of-house staff be aware of?
A heatwave poses a number of key risks, such as:
Dehydration and overheating (hyperthermia)
Dehydration is when your body loses more fluids than you take in. If this isn’t treated it can get worse and lead to more serious problems. Overheating can exacerbate symptoms for those who already have problems with their heart or breathing. Both can be caused by extreme heat and dry conditions.
In terms of the health advice out there, it’s recommended that a balanced diet is maintained to help your body replace any salt lost by sweating and, of course, that you drink plenty of water.
There are some types of medication that affect water retention and patients may wish to speak with their GP or pharmacist to allay concerns.
- muscle cramps – particularly in the arms, legs or stomach;
- mild confusion;
- sleep problems.
While heat exhaustion is not serious and usually gets better when you cool down – if it turns into heatstroke it needs to be treated as an emergency.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- nausea or vomiting;
- intense thirst;
- heavy sweating;
- a fast pulse.
If presenting with any of these symptoms, the best thing for a patient to do is to:
- find a cool place and loosen tight clothes;
- drink plenty of water or fruit juice;
- sponge body with cool water or have a cool shower.
Who is most at risk?
According to NHS guidance a heatwave can affect anyone, but the most vulnerable people are:
- older people, especially those over 75;
- babies and young children;
- people with a serious chronic condition, especially heart or breathing problems;
- people with mobility problems – for example, people with Parkinson’s disease or who have had a stroke;
- people with serious mental health problems;
- people on certain medications, including those that affect sweating and temperature control;
- people who misuse alcohol or drugs;
- people who are physically active – for example, labourers or those doing sports.
Green Amber Red; watching for the warnings
The Met Office operates an annual Heat-Health Watch system in England and Wales from June 1 to September 15 in association with the Department of Health. The Heat-Health Watch system compromises four levels of response based upon threshold maximum and minimum night-time temperatures.
Level 1 alert: be prepared
Level 1 is the minimum alert and is in place from June 1 until September 15 (which is the period that heatwave alerts are likely to be raised). Although you don’t have to do anything during a level 1 alert, it is advisable to be aware of what to do if the alert level is raised. Knowing how to keep cool during long periods of hot weather can help save lives.
Public Health England (PHE) has advice on how to stay safe during a heatwave.
Level 2 alert: heatwave is forecast
The Met Office raises an alert if there is a high chance that an average temperature of 30C by day and 15C overnight will occur over the next two to three days. These temperatures can have a significant effect on people’s health if they last for at least two days and the night in between.
No immediate action is required, but the following is recommended:
- stay tuned to the weather forecast;
- learn how to keep cool at home with the beat the heat checklist.
Level 3 alert: when a heatwave is happening
This alert is triggered when the Met Office confirms there will be heatwave temperatures in one or more regions.
Tips for coping in hot weather
- Shut windows and pull down the shades when it is hotter outside.
- Open windows for ventilation when it is cooler.
- Avoid the heat; stay out of the sun and don’t go out between 11am and 3pm (the hottest part of the day) if you’re vulnerable to the effects of heat.
- Keep rooms cool by using shades or reflective material outside the windows. If this isn’t possible, use light-coloured curtains and keep them closed (metallic blinds and dark curtains can make the room hotter).
- Have cool baths or showers and splash yourself with cool water.
- Drink cold drinks regularly, such as water and diluted fruit juice. Avoid excess alcohol, caffeine (tea, coffee and cola) or drinks high in sugar.
- Listen to alerts on the radio, TV and social media about keeping cool.
- Plan to make sure you have enough supplies, such as food, water and any medications you need.
- Identify the coolest room in the house so you know where to go to keep cool.
- Wear loose, cool clothing and a hat and sunglasses if you go outdoors.
- Check up on friends, relatives and neighbours who may be less able to look after themselves.
- If you have concerns about an uncomfortably hot house that is affecting your health or someone else’s, get medical advice.
You can also get help from the environmental health office at your local authority. They can inspect a home for hazards to health, including excess heat. Visit GOV.UK to find your local authority.
Level 4 alert: severe heatwave
This is the highest heatwave alert in Britain. It is raised when a heatwave is severe and/or prolonged and is an emergency. At level 4, the health risks from a heatwave can affect fit and healthy people and not just those in high-risk groups.
Follow the information given above for a level 3 alert. Check that anyone around you who is in a high-risk group is coping with the heat.
How do I know if someone needs help?
Seek help from a GP or contact NHS 111 if someone is feeling unwell and shows symptoms of:
- chest pain;
- intense thirst;
- cramps which get worse or don’t go away;
- get the person somewhere cool to rest and give them plenty of fluids to drink.
This information is provided by NHS Choices