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We love a sunburnt country – but extreme weather can kill

Summer and bushfires are a toxic mix for seniors. Here’s how to keep cool and safe.

  • Health
  • Read Time: 7 mins

These days, the terms “extreme” and “catastrophic” have become standard ways to report the weather.

The summer of 2023-24 is fast approaching and the bush fire season is already upon us, so it’s prudent to remember that extreme weather can and does kill. And seniors are particularly at risk.

Hospital admissions associated with extreme weather – such as heatwaves, bushfires, and storms – have increased over the past decade.

That’s according to a new report by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW): Let’s talk about the weather: injuries related to extreme weather.

In the 10 years from 2012 to 2022, extreme heat was responsible for most weather-related injuries. Bushfire-related injuries increased during El Niño years.

Extreme weather-related hospitalisations spiked at over 1,000 cases every three years, with the spikes becoming progressively higher. There were 1,027 injury hospitalisations in 2013–14, 1,033 in 2016–17 and 1,108 in 2019–20.

In each of these three-year periods, extreme heat had the biggest impact on hospitalisations and deaths. Extreme heat accounted for 7,104 injury hospitalisations and 293 deaths in the 10-year period analysed.

“Evidence has shown that over the past three decades, there has been an increase in the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, such as extreme heat, bushfires, extreme cold, rain, and storm-related events (including high rainfall, floods, and cyclones). We are seeing this reflected in hospitalisations and deaths,” AIHW spokesperson Dr Heather Swanston said.

The year 2019 was Australia’s hottest on record, with temperature records broken in many towns and cities. On 4 January 2020, metropolitan Sydney experienced an all-time high, with Penrith reaching 48.9°C.

In the 10 years from 2012 to 2022, there were 9,119 hospitalisations for injury in Australia directly attributable to extreme weather. Over a similar period, from 2011 to 2021, there were 677 deaths due to extreme weather-related injury.

Heat tops causes

Except in Tasmania, exposure to excessive natural heat was the most common cause leading to injury hospitalisation for all states and territories.

From 2019 to 2022, there were 2,143 hospital admissions related to extreme heat, ranging from 717 patients from Queensland to 19 from Tasmania.

The AIHW report also includes state and territory data on hospitalisations related to extreme cold, bushfires, and storms.

During the 10-year period analysed, there were 773 injury hospitalisations and 242 deaths related to extreme cold.

Extreme rain or storms accounted for 348 injury hospitalisations and 77 deaths. The number of injuries related to bushfires was higher in El Niño years – and the Bureau of Meteorology says we are experiencing El Niño now.

This means the likelihood of reduced rainfall, higher temperatures, and increased bushfire danger.

How to stay cool and safe

Some people have a higher risk than others of becoming ill, including adults aged over 75 years, babies, young children, and people who:

  • Have long-term health conditions such as heart or lung disease or diabetes.

  • Are living with obesity.

  • Take certain medicines.

  • Are socially isolated.

  • Work outdoors or in hot and poorly ventilated areas.

  • Are not accustomed to the heat, for example, overseas visitors.

The best ways to avoid heat-related illness is to:

  • Drink water, even if you don’t feel thirsty, because this can prevent you from becoming dehydrated.

  • Avoid alcoholic, hot, or sugary drinks (including tea and coffee) because these can make dehydration worse.

  • Carry a bottle of water with you while outdoors.

The colour of your urine can help you know if you are drinking enough water to prevent being dehydrated. Use this urine colour chartto check how hydrated you are.

Keeping as cool as possible can also help you prevent heat-related illness. Some ways to do this include:

  • Stay out of the sun.
  • Drink cold drinks and eat cold meals, such as salads and fruit.
  • Wear light-coloured and loose-fitting clothes made from natural fibres such as cotton.
  • Take cool showers or baths.
  • If you must go outside, apply sunscreen and wear a hat.
  • Plan your day around the heat — avoid being outdoors between 11am and 5pm.
  • Minimise physical activity.

You should also keep your house cool. To do this:

  • Shut curtains and blinds during the day.

  • Go to a cool place such as a library, shopping centre, cinema or swimming pool, if you do not have air conditioning.

  • Stay in the coolest room in the house.

  • Use the stove and oven as little as possible.

 To take care of others during extreme weather:

  • Visit or call elderly friends, neighbours, or relatives at least once a day.

  • Check they have water in the fridge and encourage them to drink.

  • Help them go to a shopping centre, library, or cinema with air conditioning.

  • Remind children to drink water.

  • Never leave babies, children, or animals alone in a car, even if the air conditioner is on.

  • Ensure animals have water and plenty of shade if they are outside.

Finally, you should always plan ahead:

  • Check the weather forecast and know who to call if you need help.

  • Ask your doctor if you have any health conditions that mean you are at greater risk of heat-related illness, and what you need to do about them to keep well in the heat.

  • If you are unwell, contact your doctor or go to the nearest hospital emergency department.

Related reading: AIHW, Health Direct 

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