25/07/2013 09:09 BST | Updated 23/09/2013 06:12 BST

How Much of a Risk is the Recent Heatwave to Health?


If there's one thing we've all been talking about this past fortnight, it's the heatwave. Most parts of the UK have baked in temperatures exceeding 28˚C for over two weeks now, with the hottest day in seven years recorded this Tuesday, topping 33.5˚C.

For most people, the hot, sunny weather has been welcome after a complete wash-out summer last year and one of the coldest springs for more than 50 years. But it's not all fun in the sun, beach trips and ice cream when temperatures soar. Heatwaves also pose very real health risks. The headlines late last week claimed that the death toll of this year's heatwave is up to 760 people and is expected to rise.

And this is nothing we haven't experienced before. There is strong and extensive research to show that heatwaves can affect our health for the worse. In August 2003, a three-week heatwave in Northern France resulted in 15,000 excess deaths, and in the same year, a 10-day heatwave in England resulted in 2,000 excess deaths.

The vast majority of deaths during heatwaves are among the eldery and other 'at-risk' groups, which includes the very young and people with pre-existing medical conditions. Some medications can make your skin especially sensitive to sunlight or reduce your body's ability to regulate its own body heat. The elderly may also be less able to move about or make changes to help keep themselves cool. Those with breathing problems, mental health conditions and mobility problems are also vulnerable. It's these at-risk groups we need to focus our efforts on in times of extreme weather.

The health warnings from the Met Office over the past fortnight or so have been issued for good reason. And it's evident that many people have felt the effects from the sun - the number of online searches for 'sunstroke' rocketed this past week, as the nation was engulfed in 30 plus temperatures.

Regarding the death toll, on the whole, we're not talking about healthy individuals who suddenly keel over on a hot day, so I wouldn't let the headlines scare you too much. And it's also hard to know exactly how many of the 760 heat-related deaths are among those who would have died in the following weeks, had there been a heatwave or not. But taking measures to avoid heat-related illness is crucial at this time and that message should not be taken lightly.

There is plenty you can do to keep heat-related illnesses at bay. Seek shade, drink plenty of water and identify cool rooms during the day to rest or cool down in. Check on elderly family members or neighbours, making sure they are hydrated and keeping cool; and if you or anyone else has trouble breathing or cooling down, always seek medical advice.

I'm sure we won't forget this summer in a hurry. Whether you love it or hate it, the sunshine has provided us with picnics, barbeques, paddling pools and time to enjoy the great outdoors. But it pays to keep your cool, so plan ahead according to the weather forecast and warnings to beat the heat this summer.