Extreme heat can cause a multitude of issues for Australian support workers facing the challenge of keeping both their customers and themselves cool and hydrated.


Recently the country’s foremost authority on weather, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM), went public with its prediction that most Australians will face a summer of severe heat. 


In formally announcing an El Niño event for Australia during the 2023/2024 summer, the BOM confirmed that parts of Australia will likely experience warmer and drier conditions with minimal rainfall, increasing the risk of heatwaves and fire danger.


Older people, those with existing medical conditions, babies and young children, and socially isolated people are more vulnerable to heat-related health problems, particularly when fluid lost through increased sweating is not adequately replaced or the body’s response puts excessive strain on the heart.


However, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat rash can impact everyone, with dehydration increasing the risk of developing a heat-related illness. Therefore it’s critically important to recognise the signs to look out for.


Heat stroke

NSW Health said heat stroke is the most severe of these. It occurs when you or those you care for lose the ability to cool down, causing your body temperature to increase to dangerous levels. If left untreated it can result in permanent disability or death.


Symptoms of heat stroke may include some or all of the following: confusion, loss of consciousness, agitation, slurred speech, quickened pulse, rapid breathing, muscle twitching and profuse sweating.


Because of the severity of heatstroke, NSW Health stresses that if you are concerned you should immediately call triple zero. 


In the event the symptoms are not life-threatening, your first action should be to move to a cooler area indoors or shaded outdoors area.


Lay down and elevate the feet, before loosening or removing clothing.


Start to cool down in any way possible – options may include using a cool-water spray, applying a damp sponge or cloth, having a cool shower or bath, or applying ice packs on the neck, groin and armpits.


It always pays to seek advice from a medical professional before taking (or distributing) aspirin, ibuprofen or paracetamol to treat the symptoms of heat stroke as these may prove harmful.


Heat exhaustion

NSW Health said heat exhaustion is your body’s response to a loss of water and salt in hot weather “usually through excessive sweating”.


As with heat stroke, symptoms can vary between individuals. The most common of these present as decreased urine output, nausea and dizziness, weakness, heavy sweating, muscle cramps and/or irritability.


The best way to treat suspected heat exhaustion is to follow the first aid tips for heat stroke and contact a medical professional if symptoms persist.


Heat cramps

Heat cramps are the body’s response to a loss of salt due to excessive sweating.


While on the milder side of heat-related illnesses, they can be a symptom of more serious heat exhaustion. 


Drinking water not only helps to reduce muscle spasms and twitching but it also helps to regulate body temperature. The colour of your urine will indicate if you are dehydrated. If it’s pale yellow or straw-coloured, you are probably well hydrated. If it’s darker yellow, you need to drink more water.


Heat rash

When excessive sweat blocks sweat glands, a red, itchy rash with small bumps or blisters where skin touches skin may develop, NSW Health said.


Typically, this impacts the neck, groin, armpits, inside of the elbow and under the breasts. While it will normally go away without treatment, it can help to keep the impacted areas of the skin cool and dry.

Ensuring you or those you care for are well hydrated is the best way to combat all these illnesses. It has other benefits too, including moistening eyes, nose and mouth cavities, aiding delivery of oxygen around our bodies and lubricating joints to help movement. 


As well as helping to heighten physical and mental performance, ensuring you or those you care for are well hydrated also lessens the chance of kidney stones, constipation, urinary tract infections and headaches.