Heat Stroke: What is it and how to prevent it?

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The UAE is well known for its sky-high temperatures and hot weather – has anyone tried going outside after 7 am in Dubai these days?! This isn’t unique to the UAE, the Middle East is generally renowned for its record-breaking scorching temperatures, with summer months often bringing extreme heat, sometimes over 50 degrees Celsius, posing serious health risks to the population. 

Among the most severe of these risks is heat stroke, a life-threatening condition that occurs when the body’s temperature regulation system fails due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures. With climate change exacerbating the frequency and intensity of heat waves, understanding what causes heat strokes, and how to prevent and manage them, is becoming increasingly more important.

What is Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke is a medical emergency characterized by a core body temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher, accompanied by central nervous system dysfunction, such as confusion, seizures, or unconsciousness. Unlike heat exhaustion, which can be managed with rest and hydration, heat stroke requires immediate medical intervention. Without prompt treatment, heat stroke can cause damage to vital organs and lead to death.

Causes and Risk Factors

a city’s skyline in hot summer weather where there’s an increased risk for the development of a heatstroke.

The primary reason why heat stroke occurs is prolonged exposure to high temperatures compounded by high humidity – something that’s always in mind if you live anywhere in the UAE- as well as direct exposure to the sunshine.

Also, the following conditions and factors increase heat stroke risk:

  • Age: Because of their inefficient thermoregulatory systems, young children and older adults are more susceptible to this condition and it’s complications.
  • Chronic Illnesses: Diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and respiratory ailments may worsen the body’s ability to lose heat.
  • Medications: Some medications like diuretics, antihistamines, antidepressants can cause an impact on the body’s temperature regulation.
  • Outdoor Activities: People who work or exercise out in the open are at higher risks during peak hot hours.
  • Clothing: Wearing heavy clothes that don’t breathe properly can prevent sweat evaporation.

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The Middle Eastern Context

man holding a thermometer in hot weather

Conditions in Middle East make it difficult for individuals with regard to management of heat stroke due to its climatic conditions, urbanization and socio-economic factors. Some cities such as Riyadh in Saudi Arabia, Dubai in the UAE, and Baghdad in Iraq, have experienced temperatures going beyond 113°F (45°C) during summers. Moreover, these conditions are made worse by high levels of moisture along coastal areas, hence increasing people’s vulnerability to the physiological disturbances associated with heat waves.

  • Urban Heat Islands: High rates of urbanization lead to creation of ‘heat islands’ where concrete and tarmac absorb and retain heat making them hotter than surrounding rural areas. In cities, this phenomenon makes it even more dangerous for residents because they become exposed to extreme heat leading to increased chances of developing sunstrokes.
  • Labor Force: The region, especially here in the United Arab Emirates, has a huge population of migrant laborers, many employed in construction and other outdoor activities which makes them more vulnerable to heatstrokes.
  • Cultural Practices: although traditional clothing offers some protection against the sun, it can also cause overheating. Furthermore, cultural attitudes towards hydration may influence the effectiveness of interventions focusing on public health.

Some strategies for preventing heat stroke and managing it are:

woman drinking water to hydrate and avoid a heat stroke
  1. Public Awareness Campaigns: Governments should make regular awareness campaigns through different mass media channels to inform the public about signs of heatstroke, preventive methods, and what to do in case one develops the condition.
  2. Hydration: It is very important that people drink plenty of water even before they feel thirsty- especially if they spend extended periods of time in hot environments. Those who are at greater risk should be particularly provided with cool drinking water throughout.
  3. Workplace Regulations: Governments need to implement and enforce measures aimed at protecting outdoor workers, like for example the “Mid-day Break Rule for Workers Under the Sun” rule implemented by the UAE government. This includes provision of rest times, shade areas as well as hydration points.
  4. Cooling Centers: To reduce the chances of suffering from illnesses related to hot weather, there is a need for setting up air-conditioned places where individuals can stay during extreme heat waves.
  5. Medical Preparedness: Healthcare professionals need training on how to identify and treat cases of heat stroke promptly. Emergency services must be updated and prepared to handle such situations when they occur especially during periods of hot weather conditions.

Heat stroke has become a very serious public health issue in the Middle East because of its scorching temperatures, urbanization, and socio-economic factors. The region can better protect its residents from the effects of climate change and extreme heat conditions by acting proactively and coming up with preventive as well as management mechanisms that will enable it to avoid experiencing the effects that come along with a warming planet. These proactive measures together with community resilience are essential elements for adapting to the mounting threat of extreme temperature changes.

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