How extreme heat can be damaging to your long-term health

Heat can be deadly and kills more people every year like other weather risks. But as hotter days become the new normal — or, as some climate scientists say, our “new abnormal” — The harmful effects of higher temperatures on our bodies can last much longer than you think.

The World Health Organization says climate change is “humanity’s single greatest health threat”. And while that may sound like hyperbole, experts say it’s really not that far-fetched.

“There are really direct links between climate and health, and what we’re seeing in many cases is what we might call ‘climate-exacerbated disease,'” Dr. Christopher Tedeschi, director of emergency preparedness at Columbia University’s Department of Emergency Medicine, told Yahoo News.

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Why is extreme heat bad for health right now?

Stop sign with a desert landscape in the background that reads: Stop, danger of extreme heat.  Walking after 10 am is not recommended.

Sign in Death Valley National Park on Monday with 120°F and climbing. (Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Walking outside on an oppressively hot day, it’s easy to see how excessive heat can cause immediate harm. Heatstroke and heat exhaustion may be among the first conditions that come to mind. Heatstroke, which occurs when the body loses its ability to cool and regulate its temperature, and can cause permanent disability and even death, where body temperatures can rise to 106°F or higher in less than 15 minutes. Heat exhaustion, which includes symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, and headache, can lead to heat stroke if not treated immediately.

However, extreme heat can also be harmful in less obvious ways, and can have a major impact on chronic diseases.

“Heat stresses your body, and when your body is stressed, it has a hard time dealing with other things like heart disease or respiratory disease,” Tedeschi said. “When you look at emergency room visits during extreme heat, for example, more people have heart attacks and strokes, and frankly, that’s just a reflection of stress on the body.”

Higher temperatures also often lead to poorer air quality, as extreme heat and stagnant air increase air pollution ozone and particle pollution. And when you’ve endured the roasting, all that heat can harm your sleep Even mild heat exposure keeps the body temperature high, affects sleep stages and prevents the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep.

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How high temperatures harm your health in the long run

Two park rangers in uniform are pictured near a visitor center sign against a desert landscape, while a third ranger has a cell phone pointing at them next to a digital sign that reads: 132F 55C

National Park Service rangers next to an unofficial temperature reading at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center in Death Valley National Park on Sunday. (Ronda Churchill/AFP)

“On an individual level, I think it’s heat stress over a good period of time,” Tedeschi said. “If you’re constantly exposed to extreme heat or hot temperatures that your body can’t handle, I think that frankly puts you at risk for things that your body might otherwise fight off.”

There are also more downstream effects. Wildfire smoke – which has become an all-too-familiar problem in much of the United States as fires continue smoldering in Canada and in California – is adverse health effects when these dangerous gases and fine particles are inhaled, and the effect poor air quality caused by smoke can also be harmful in the long term.

“These small particles probably have some long-term effects that we don’t fully understand yet,” Tedeschi said. “They get deep into the lungs, probably cause more inflammation and may be the cause of more chronic diseases. Combined with the heat, it’s a really dangerous combination.

Heat and drought – which have been linked to climate change – are also prime conditions for a more severe wildfire season, and are expected to worsen as our planet warms. Natural Resources Canada says climate change could double the amount of area burned annually by the end of this century.

Smoke rises from the Texas Creek wildfire in British Columbia on July 9.

Smoke rises from the Texas Creek wildfire in British Columbia on July 9. (BC Wildfire Service/Handout via Reuters)

“I think about children who are chronically exposed to poor air quality, and that’s an absolute risk for chronic asthma,” Tedeschi said. “If you look at asthma and the heat index and access to green space, there is a lot of correlation. And so I am concerned, for example, that children are exposed to poor air quality in such a way that they either develop respiratory problems or the ones they already have in their lifetime can get worse.”

Milder winters and earlier springs, which create a ripe wildfire season, also allow disease-carrying insects like mosquitoes and ticks to thrive longer and expand their habitat into new, warmer corners of the United States. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports who report in the years 2004-2018…

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