Be Aware of Impending Heatstrokes

By Dr. Mohd Nurfaiz Mohd Nasir

April 2024 FEATURE
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THE MALAYSIAN METEOROLOGICAL DEPARTMENT (MetMalaysia) has issued a Level 1 heatwave alert as scorching heat continues creeping northwards on the peninsula. (The Star, 25 February 2024)

The country’s hot spell could persist until July, and preparation is crucial. Some of us might not view the increasingly hot weather as a significant issue and imagine that merely increasing the use of air conditioning and hydrating more frequently would suffice. 

The truth is, ignoring the severe health risks linked to exposure to this heat could lead to severe outcomes. Heatwaves are prolonged periods of sweltering weather, and MetMalaysia indicates that having temperatures at 35°C to 37°C for at least three consecutive days already indicates a Level 1 heatwave. If humidity is high at the same time, the weather would feel warmer. 

Extreme hot weather can pose various health risks. People not used to it are more likely to suffer from heat exhaustion or heatstroke; this is because the body finds it challenging to adapt to abrupt shifts in temperature. Elderly folk and those with high blood pressure are more susceptible due to a deteriorating central nervous system. Those working under the hot sun (and others who are brave enough to exercise at noon) are also susceptible to heat exhaustion. Heatstroke, however, is more severe. It is classically defined as having a core temperature of more than 40.5°C accompanied by a central nervous system dysfunction.[1]

Heatstroke Indications and Risks

The reality of heat-related illnesses can be more severe than expected. Once the body’s core temperature exceeds 40°C, an individual might experience mental disorientation, headaches and confusion, leading to unclear speech. The individual’s skin may feel hot and dry, and appear reddened while he perspires profusely. Nausea and rapid breathing may also set in. Age and working under the sun can heighten the risk of heatstroke. This does not mean that others are safe. Those with chronic health conditions such as heart or lung disease are also at high risk.

The Conversation reported that the average heatwave exposure in the 2010s was more than 40% greater among the poor than among the wealthiest quarter.[2] Those doing physical labour are more likely to suffer from heat-related illnesses; with low incomes, the homes of these people may not be equipped with cooling systems to protect them against the heat.

Preventing Heatstroke

Heatstroke is both predictable and preventable. Be sure to stay hydrated by drinking enough fluids so that you can sweat to maintain a normal body temperature. Hydrate adequately and take breaks in a cooler location. If it can be helped, schedule physical activities during cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or evening.

High-risk individuals such as young children or older individuals should be looked after closely. These age groups should avoid hot and stuffy environments. Identify early and act promptly if you notice symptoms of overheating that could lead to heatstroke.

There have also been a number of cases reported where children have died after being left in a parked car. Temperatures inside a parked car can rapidly rise to dangerous levels for anyone, be it children, pets or adults. Leaving the windows slightly open does not significantly decrease the heating rate. The effects of being locked in a car can be more severe on children because their bodies warm at a faster rate than adults. 

Common Misconceptions about Heatstroke

In the meantime, there are also persistent myths about heatstroke which lead to misconceptions and to potentially harmful practices.

Myth 1: Heatstroke only happens outdoors.

Fact: Heatstroke can occur anywhere, not just outdoors. Poorly ventilated or non-air-conditioned spaces can also lead to heatstroke.

Myth 2: Drinking cold water causes heatstroke.

Fact: Hydration is crucial in preventing heatstroke. The temperature of the water does not cause heatstroke. In fact, cold water helps cool the body.

Myth 3: Sweating means you’re not overheating.

Fact: Sweating is the body’s mechanism to cool down. However, excessive sweating during a heatwave can lead to dehydration, a key factor leading to heatstroke.

Understanding these facts about heatstroke can help us stay safe during hot weather. Remember, when temperatures rise, it is important to take precautions to protect ourselves and those around us. If you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of heatstroke, seek medical help immediately. Heatstroke is a medical emergency and can be fatal if not promptly and properly treated.

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Dr. Mohd Nurfaiz Mohd Nasir

is a doctor at Pantai Hospital Penang's Emergency Department. He is experienced in handling medical emergencies and uncertainties while guiding patients through the darkest storms of medical crises.