Temperature extremes can affect our health directly by compromising the body’s ability to regulate its internal temperature.
Loss of internal temperature control can result in a surge of weather-related illnesses. This includes heatstroke in extreme heat and hypothermia, and frostbite in the presence of extreme cold.
Temperature extremes also worsen underlying chronic health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes-related conditions. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures relates to a significant increase in hospital admissions for cardiovascular, kidney, and respiratory disorders.
Defining Temperature Exposures
We define extreme temperature through standard measures. For example, we measure heat index with a combination of temperature and humidity, or wind chill through temperature and wind speed that extends over several days.
While temperature extremes are generally determined based on weather records, it also depends on the exposure of individuals. It will mostly depend on their location and the differences between indoor and outdoor temperatures.
Weather-related injuries are very common during a disaster or crisis. If you cannot get into a hospital during an emergency, do your best to handle the situation until further medical help arrives.
Frostbite and Hypothermia
Exposure to high temperatures with wind chill and maximum humidity may cause your body’s control mechanisms to fail.
Frostbite is an injury that occurs when a person is exposed to low temperatures. It can cause the freezing of a specific body part such as fingers, toes, nose, earlobes, and the underlying tissues. Frostbite symptoms include numbness to the area. The skin may appear waxy, cold to the touch, or discoloured.
First Aid for Frostbite
- Protect the person from further damage by getting out of the cold and moving them to a warm place.
- Handle the area gently and warm the frostbitten area by soaking in warm water (100–105 degrees F). Do it until the skin appears red and feels warm.
- Loosely bandage the area using dry, sterile dressings.
- If the fingers or toes are frostbitten, place them dry and sterile gauze in between to separate them from non-affected areas.
- Avoid breaking any blisters that may appear and do not allow any area to refreeze.
- Get professional medical help as soon as possible.
Hypothermia is another cold-related emergency that can quickly become life-threatening. It occurs when the body falls below the temperature of 35°C, failing the body’s warming system. The goal of first aid for hypothermia is to restore normal body temperature and to care for any conditions—all before the arrival of EMS to the scene.
Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, numbness, glassy stare, apathy, weakness, drowsiness, and loss of consciousness.
First Aid for Hypothermia
- Gently move the person into a warm location and take off any wet clothing.
- Use an electric blanket (if available) to bring warmth to the person’s body. When providing warmth, start with the centre of the body first in the chest, neck, head, and groin.
- If you do not have access to an electric blanket, use skin-to-skin contact. Place your skin against the person’s body and use whatever is available on the scene to provide warmth. Use loose, dry layers of blankets, clothing, towels, or sheets to cover those in need.
- If the person is awake, offer them a warm beverage. A warm drink can help raise the body temperature. Never give a drink to someone unconscious or not alert.
- Keep the person dry and provide support to their head and neck until medical help arrives.
Heat-related injuries occur due to exposure to an abnormal amount of heat and humidity for a long time, without relief or adequate fluid intake.
The body’s normal function can cool itself by sweating. Under some conditions, the body’s control system can start to fail. In such scenarios, a person’s body temperature may rise quickly. Extreme high temperatures can result in damage to the brain and other organs.
According to statistics, heat has been the leading cause of weather-related fatalities over the last 30 years. With temperatures that high, the most vulnerable — infants, the elderly, and pets — need extra protection. Out of the nine categories of weather-related deaths, heat fatalities rank first over a 30-year average and rank 2nd over a 10-year average.
There are three common heat illnesses known to people – heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. Knowing their symptoms will make you more effective in attending to them.
- Heat cramps: These are muscular pains and spasms that occur due to heavy exertion. It is the least serious type of heat-related injury, common in the stomach, arms, or legs. Heat cramps are often the first signal that the body is having trouble with the heat.
- Heat exhaustion: This is the body’s response to losing too much water and salt in sweat. It often occurs in conditions where a person exercises heavily or works in a hot, humid place. Older people and those with underlying health conditions such as high blood pressure are at risk from heat exhaustion. Its symptoms include heavy sweating, paleness, muscle cramps, tiredness, weakness, nausea, and fainting. Without first aid, the person’s condition may worsen.
- Heatstroke, also known as sunstroke, occurs when the body is unable to cool itself down. Heatstroke symptoms include a body temperature above 41°C (103°F). Its symptoms include hot, dry red skin, rapid, strong pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and loss of consciousness.
Among the three, heatstroke is the most dangerous and life-threatening. During this time, the body’s temperature control system, responsible for producing sweat, stops working.
Here’s what you should do in the event of a heat stroke.
- Move the person into a cool place, out of direct sunlight.
- Remove any unnecessary clothing and place the person sidewards to expose as much skin surface to the air.
- Cool the entire body by sponging or spraying cold water. Use a fan or air conditioning to help lower the person’s body temperature. Watch carefully for signs of rapidly progressing heatstroke. This includes seizure, unconsciousness, and moderate to severe difficulty breathing.
- Apply ice, cold packs over the person’s body as you can.
- Check the overall body temperature and try to reduce it to 102°F (39°C) or the normal body temperature of 37°C.
- If the person stops breathing or begins to lose consciousness, start CPR.
- Do not give medications such as aspirin or acetaminophen in an attempt to reduce a high body temperature. These medicines may cause problems as not all body has the same response to heatstroke.
- If the person is awake and alert enough to swallow, offer them fluids for hydration. Make sure that the person is sitting up to avoid choking. Take extra precautions as most people with heatstroke have an altered level of consciousness. With that said, most people cannot safely be given fluids to drink without supervision.
The longer the body is at an extreme low or high temperature, the more serious the illness and the more likely complications will develop. It is important to keep our core temperature to a normal range (or close to it). First aid for extreme weather temperatures can also help keep you and your loved one safe from weather-related injuries.