How to survive an extreme heatwave

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 20 November 2019

Five tips for staying safe –  and cool –  during Victoria's swelter season.

As Victoria faces a long hot summer, authorities are warning that heatwaves kill more people than any other natural disaster. In February 2009, the heatwave that swept Victoria, pushing temperatures to a record 45.7 degrees in Melbourne and 48.8 degrees in the southern Mallee, claimed 374 lives – more than twice the number who died in the Black Saturday bushfires.  

St Kilda beach packed with swimmers on 40 degree day

Victoria’s chief health officer Dr Brett Sutton says extreme, prolonged heat is a killer and those most at risk are the elderly, the very young, pregnant women and people with medical conditions such as heart problems. 

“The emergency services are aware that heat kills, and it puts significant pressure on health services, so preventing it [heat-related health issues] is the key,” he says. 

“When you’re sweating your core temperature has already increased,” he says. He advises people to minimise risk by keeping up fluids, seeking out air-conditioned places and staying indoors in the hottest part of the day. 

Brett advises people to turn on the air-conditioner or fan early in the day, take a cool shower, wear lightweight and light-coloured loose clothes and spray yourself with cool water. People who don’t have air-conditioning or fans should plan ahead and go to air-conditioned facilities such as a shopping centre, library or cinema.  (More: Prepare your home for summer.)

He recommends cancelling any non-urgent appointments during a heatwave and to avoid going out during the hottest part of the day. 

People should also check on neighbours and friends who are at risk and if possible take them to a place with air-conditioning, he says. 

Heatwaves are infamously known as the silent and invisible killers of silent and invisible people, according to the Red Cross’s state manager of emergency services Kate Siebert.

Red Cross will reach out to vulnerable Victorians this summer who may not have family, friends or others to check on them during days of extreme heat. 

Under a trial, volunteers will telephone up to 1000 pre-registered people in Gippsland and metropolitan Melbourne on extreme heat days to check if they’re okay and raise the alarm if they don’t answer the call. 

The initiative is based on the Red Cross’s highly successful Telecross REDi service in South Australia, which has a track record of saving lives by sending emergency services to check on registered people who cannot be contacted on days of extreme heat.    

RSPCA chief vet Dr Emma Bronts says it’s also important to care for your pets when the mercury soars. Keep indoor pets cool by closing drapes and using air-conditioning and remember to leave out plenty of water, she says.  

Outdoor pets need access to shaded areas and multiple water sources in case a bowl is knocked over. Aviaries must be out of direct sunlight, or bring birds inside in small cages. 

Both dogs and cats pant when they are heat-affected. Cool them down gradually with wet towels or tepid baths and if the animal seems distressed consult a vet. 

‘Squishy-nose dogs’ or brachycephalic breeds like pugs, bulldogs, Boston terriers and boxers are at particular risk of heatstroke as their short noses make it difficult for them to pant – which is the main way dogs cool themselves down. These breeds can be in danger of over-heating, even on milder summer days. 

Emma recommends avoiding walking dogs on very hot days, or walking them only in the cool of the early morning or night. 

Rabbits and guinea pigs are prone to heatstroke so should be moved inside and placed on cool tiles in a laundry or bathroom. Alternatively, place outside hutches in the shade with a cold pack inside to defrost over the day, she says. 

Five tips to survive extreme heat

  1. Drink water. Avoid alcohol, fizzy drinks, tea and coffee 
  2. Hot cars kill. Never leave children, older people or pets in cars.  
  3. Keep cool. Seek out air-conditioned buildings, draw your blinds, use a fan, take cool showers and dress in light and loose clothing.  
  4. Plan ahead. Schedule activities in the coolest part of the day and avoid exercising in the heat.  
  5. Check on others. Look after those most at risk – neighbours living alone, the elderly, the young, people with a medical condition and pets.