Public health advice as heatwave continues across southern and central Europe
Excessively high temperatures are expected to continue in parts of central Europe, Balkan countries, Italy, Portugal and southern Spain. Such heat leads to increased concerns for the health and well-being of vulnerable groups such small children, the elderly and those who have chronic medical conditions.
Heatwaves have caused more fatalities in Europe in recent decades than any other extreme weather event. Prolonged and sustained heatwaves are also occurring more frequently in parts of Europe and can largely be attributed to climate change. Their impact is expected to increase in the future, according to the projected rise in average temperatures.
Extreme fluctuations in air temperatures can contribute directly and indirectly to heart and respiratory diseases, particularly among elderly people. Excessive heat can also trigger a variety of heat-related illnesses such as heat rash, dehydration, swelling, dizziness, cramps and heat stroke. Heat stroke is the most severe complication; it occurs when one’s body becomes unable to control its temperature, often resulting in death.
Who is at risk?
Heat-related illnesses can affect anyone, but the main risk factors include:
- age – elderly people (65 years or older) are particularly at risk;
- chronic health conditions in all age groups;
- use of medicines that affect the temperature regulation system in the body; and
- lower levels of fitness, persistent dehydration, extreme fatigue, etc.
Chronic health conditions that increase risk include:
- type 1 and type 2 diabetes;
- cardiovascular diseases such as high blood pressure;
- lung and respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic bronchitis;
- kidney disease; and
- other chronic conditions, including some mental health disorders.
Public health advice
Heat-related illnesses are preventable and treatable, but can become fatal if symptoms are not addressed in a timely way. Protective actions against all forms of heat-related illnesses include:
- keeping informed on the weather by regularly checking the weather forecast and listening to the authorities’ recommendations;
- keeping your home cool and staying out of the heat;
- keeping your body cool and well hydrated; and
- helping others who are at risk.
If you have a known health condition:
- apply the recommended protective actions above;
- take medication(s) as prescribed by your doctor; and
- keep prescribed medicine(s) below 25 °C or in the refrigerator (read the storage instructions on the packaging).
If you or others feel unwell:
- try to get help if you feel dizzy, weak, anxious or have intense thirst and headache;
- move to a cool place as soon as possible and measure your body temperature, if possible;
- drink some water or fruit juice to rehydrate;
- rest immediately in a cool place if you have painful muscular spasms (particularly in the legs, arms or abdomen, in many cases after sustained exercise), and use hydrating drinks such as oral rehydration solutions that contain modest amounts of sugar and salts (medical attention is needed if heat cramps last more than one hour); and
- consult your doctor if you feel unusual symptoms or if symptoms persist.
Action by WHO/Europe
WHO/Europe continues to support countries in the WHO European Region to prevent adverse health effects of heatwaves by providing: public health and technical advice; support in strengthening systems to detect, monitor and report climate-related health effects; guidance to define criteria for collective action; and reliable evidence on heat-related illness.
WHO/Europe also recommends that countries, subregions and cities develop and implement heat–health action plans to prevent, react to and contain heat-related risks to health.