Here comes the sun (again): how to cope during a heatwave

August 2nd, 2018 by Joe Lofts

It's safe to say the summer of 2018 has been a bit of sizzler so far. With the temperature hovering around the high-20s and low-30s for weeks on end, it's been our hottest summer since the scorching heatwave of 1976.

As this year’s heatwave engulfs much of Europe, the natural response for many is to seize the opportunity and head to parks, beaches and beer gardens. After shivering our way through the subzero bitterness of the Beast from the East in February, who can blame us?

However, the soaring temperatures have also brought something much worse: a serious health risk.

Brits may be notorious for whinging about the weather, but in this case it might be justified: being aware of the risks of extreme heat and humidity will allow you enjoy the summer without being admitted to hospital for heatstroke any time soon.


  1. What is a heatwave?
  2. Recognising the main risks
  3. Am I vulnerable to the heat?
  4. Quick tips to beat the heat

What is a heatwave?

Although there’s no official definition of a heatwave in the UK, the Met Office states that:

“The term can be used to describe an extended period of hot weather relative to the expected conditions of the area at that time of year.”

Heatwaves usually occur in summer, and are caused when slow-moving high pressure systems develop over an area for a prolonged period of time (usually days or weeks).

Bone dry: Peckham Rye in South London, August 2018.

To help establish the different threat level of heat to public health, the Met Office (in association with Public Health England) has an early warning system known as the the Heat Health watch service. If a heatwave is likely, the following alerts are issued:


Level 1 is the minimum alert and is in place between 1 June and 15 September. You don’t have to do anything during a level 1 alert, but it’s advisable to be prepared in case the level is raised.


This alert is raised by the Met Office if the weather is likely to reach 30C during the day and 15C throughout the night, and is expected to last at least two consecutive days. These temperatures can have a significant impact on a person’s health, so it’s certainly worth preparing.

Keep an eye on the weather forecast on the TV, radio, social media or the Met Office website. If you’re travelling somewhere, check the forecast at your destination.


This alert goes out once the Met Office confirms that there will be heatwave in one or more regions.

If you see a level 3 alert being raised, follow our quick tips on how to beat the heat.


This is the highest heatwave alert in the UK. When a heatwave reaches this stage, it becomes a threat to fit and healthy people - not just those in high-risk groups (including the elderly, the very young and those with preexisting chronic conditions).

During a level 4 heatwave, follow the information for level 3 and ensure that any high-risk people around you are able to cope with the heat.

Public Health England offer this advice on how to stay safe during a heat wave.

Recognising the main risks

According to the NHS, there are three main health risks posed by a heatwave: dehydration, overheating and heat exhaustion or heatstroke.

1) Dehydration

This is caused when your body loses more fluids than it takes in. The symptoms include feeling thirsty, passing dark yellow or strong smelling urine, urinating less frequently, tiredness, and dry mouth, lips and eyes. To stave off the effects of dehydration, drink more water!

2) Overheating

Overheating refers to a raise in your body’s core temperature, which can make symptoms worse if you already have a heart condition or breathing problems. Staying in a cool environment can help you avoid this potentially dangerous reaction to extreme heat.

3) Heat exhaustion or heatstroke

Heat exhaustion is not serious in most cases and usually gets better once you cool down and hydrate yourself. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

If something else is showing signs of heat exhaustion it’s imperative that you try to lower their body temperature, get them hydrated and get them to rest. Follow these steps if such an incident occurs:

  1. Move them to a cool place as quickly as possible.
  2. Give them plenty of water to rehydrate themselves. If water is unavailable, cool non-alcoholic and non-caffeinated drinks will do.
  3. If air conditioning is not available, fan the person.
  4. Place ice packs or cool, wet towels on their neck, armpit and groin.
  5. Get them to lie down on their back and raise their feet slightly to improve circulation.
  6. Call NHS Direct (111) or 999 if the person has not improved after 30 minutes or has collapsed - as there’s a chance that they may develop heatstroke.

Heatstroke is a medical emergency that needs immediate attention.

Heatstroke (also known as hyperthermia) is a medical emergency that is potentially life-threatening as it can cause damage to your brain and other vital organs. Symptoms of heatstroke include:

If you think someone else is experiencing symptoms of heatstroke, call 999 immediately. Once the emergency services have been notified, follow steps 1-5 for heat exhaustion to keep the person cool and hydrated as you await medical help.

Am I vulnerable to the heat?

This may sound like a silly question - at the end of the day, we’re all going to struggle when the temperature soars above 30C. However, certain people are at greater risk than others during a heatwave.

Age is certainly a factor, and less mobile and independent age groups such as the elderly, babies and young children are at particularly high risk of developing heat exhaustion or heatstroke. Older people also have a decreased sweat response, meaning they don’t feel thirst as much and are less likely to hydrate themselves regularly. Make sure that any elderly or very young people you know remain cool, hydrated and rested.

People with pre-existing medical conditions are at risk too, as high temperatures and humidity may make the symptoms worse. If you have a chronic illness such as diabetes, heart disease or asthma, make sure to take precautionary measures to stay cool, hydrated and rested during a heatwave. Many people struggle to sleep during through high overnight temperatures, and insomnia can worsen the symptoms of any condition.

Extreme heat and humidity can have important implications for our mental health as well as our physical health. If you suffer from a serious mental health problem, make sure to keep yourself cool and hydrated throughout the day.

Certain medications such as antidepressants can make a person vulnerable to the effects of a heatwave. According to a study published in the European Psychiatry journal, psychotropic drugs can impact the body’s ability to regulate temperature.

If you’re physically active and spent much of your time outdoors, you’ll also be at risk. Try to stay in the shade as much as possible and drink water at regular intervals.

Quick tips to beat the heat

Whether you’re at high risk during a heatwave or not, there are several measures you can take to ensure that heat exhaustion and heatstroke never pay you a visit. Though this checklist may seem fairly self-explanatory, it’s better to be safe than sorry!

1) Drink plenty of liquids like water and fruit juice. Dehydration can occur quickly during a heatwave, so it’s important that you drink water at regular intervals throughout the day. This will help you make up for fluids lost through extra sweating.

2) Stay indoors during the hottest hours of the day. During a heatwave, the hours between 11am and 3pm are when the sun is at its hottest - making the risks of heat exhaustion with the proper precautions sky high. If you have air conditioning, even better.

3) Stay in the shade where possible. This will help your body temperature stay cool and will reduce the effects of harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. If the humidity is too much to bear, move back indoors (especially if it’s air conditioned!).

4) Dress cool. Try to fight the urge to strip off, because you’ll be leaving your skin exposed to the mercy of the sun. Instead, wear light colours to reflect heat and sport loose garments that allow your body to breathe. Don’t forget to don a hat and sunglasses!

5) Keep the inside of your house cool. There’s nothing worse than escaping the searing summer sun, only to find that your home feels warmer than outside. To keep it cool, close curtains during the day to keep the sun out, and use air conditioning whenever you can (if it’s an option).

6) Place a damp cotton cloth on the wrists or the back of the neck. Your wrists and neck are pulse points, meaning you can feel your pulse because the blood vessels are close to the surface of the skin. By applying cold water to these areas, you can cool off your blood and body temperature.

7) Wear sunblock with a sun protection factor of at least 15. If you need to spend time in the sun, a good sunblock will protect you from UV rays.

8) Avoid large meals, caffeine and alcohol if possible. Heavy meals filled with protein and carbs will take more ingesting, which in turn produces more body heat. Caffeine and alcohol are both diuretics that can increase dehydration. Try to out foods that have a high water content such as strawberries, melon, cucumber and celery. Research suggests that hot and spicy foods can also cool you down.

If you know anyone likely to be at risk during hot weather, help them get the advice and support they need. This especially applies to elderly people who are living on their own, as they are at increased risk during a heatwave.

If you have pets, make sure to keep them well hydrated and the shade. Dogs, cats and other furry friends are just as susceptible to heatstroke as humans, so it’s vital that you ensure they’re protected from the sun.

Keep cool, take care and enjoy the summer!

Further information

For the latest weather reports and heatwave advice, check out the Met Office website.

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