Heat waves: health impacts.

Natália Marto


During the summer of 2003, record high temperatures were reported across Europe, causing thousands of casualties. Heat waves are sporadic recurrent events, characterised by intense and prolonged heat, associated with excess mortality and morbidity. The most frequent cause of death directly attributable to heat is heat stroke but heat waves are known to cause increases in all-cause mortality, specially circulatory and respiratory mortality. Epidemiological studies demonstrate excess casualties cluster in specific risk groups. The elderly, those with chronic medical conditions and the socially isolated are particularly vulnerable. Air conditioning is the strongest protective factor against heat-related disorders. Heat waves cause disease indirectly, by aggravating chronic disorders, and directly, by causing heat-related illnesses (HRI). Classic HRI include skin eruptions, heat cramps, heat syncope, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke is a medical emergency characterised by hyperthermia and central nervous system dysfunction. Treatment includes immediate cooling and support of organ-system function. Despite aggressive treatment, heat stroke is often fatal and permanent neurological damage is frequent in those who survive. Heat related illness and death are preventable through behavioural adaptations, such as use of air conditioning and increased fluid intake. Other adaptation measures include heat emergency warning systems and intervention plans and environmental heat stress reduction. Heat related mortality is expected to rise as a consequence of the increasing proportion of elderly persons, the growing urban population, and the anticipated increase in number and intensity of heat waves associated with global warming. Improvements in surveillance and response capability may limit the adverse health conditions of future heat waves. It is crucial that health professionals are prepared to recognise, prevent and treat HRI and learn to cooperate with local health agencies.

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