Heat and COVID-19: how to protect yourself and stay healthy

The long-awaited summertime and holidays make this season the favorite of many people. However, typical summer weather – such as very high temperatures for several days, often combined with high humidity, strong solar radiation and lack of ventilation – may pose a health risk.

The heat affects the body temperature regulation. Under normal climate conditions, the body cools by sweating, but in certain instances – such as very high levels of humidity – sweat does not evaporate rapidly, therefore the body cannot effectively expel the internal heat. As a result, the body temperature increases rapidly and may damage the major organs.

In extreme heat conditions, aged people and those suffering from chronic diseases are the most at-risk population. To be counted in this group of most vulnerable individuals, there is a “new category”, consisting of people with long-term COVID-19. It is a chronic syndrome (hence, the definition of long-term COVID-19) characterized by long lasting symptoms – such as respiratory difficulties and coughing, palpitations, weakness, fever, sleep disorders, dizziness, delirium (in older people) and gastrointestinal disorders – for several months after infection. More and more evidence indicates that overcoming the acute stage of COVID-19 does not necessarily lead to complete healing, but may lead to the onset of chronic disorders. Recent studies also suggest that these patients have less tolerance to heat and this could lead to an increased risk of being affected by the heat.

According to the indications of the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Italian Ministry of Health, information and accurate preventive measures are essential not only to counter the effects of the heat, but also to control (and, therefore, limit) the evolution of the COVID-19 epidemic. Therefore, it is essential to know how to distinguish the disorders associated with the heat from those caused by the pathology COVID-19.

Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can result in mild disorders (muscle cramps, fainting, edema) or more severe problems (such as heat stroke, dehydration and rising body temperature). Extreme heat can also lead to a worsening of health conditions in people with pre-existing chronic conditions.

The most frequent symptoms of COVID-19 infection are fever and chills, dry cough and sore throat, weakness, difficulty breathing, reduced or lost sense of smell and taste.

It is therefore important to be able to distinguish between fever and temporary increase in body temperature due to heat (hyperthermia). It is hyperthermia if the body temperature drops spontaneously after a break of at least half an hour in a cool place. However, if the symptoms persist or if you suspect that you have had contact with someone with COVID-19, you must contact your doctor and comply with the safety measures to avoid further infections.

To protect our health and that of our families, the Italian Ministry of Health gives us some valuable advice on how to deal with the heat during the coronavirus times, what are the good habits to adopt and how to behave indoors and outdoors.

Although high temperatures can accentuate fatigue and sometimes discourage physical activity, a dynamic lifestyle is always the right choice. When it is very hot, drinking more often (at least two liters of water a day) and refreshing yourself by bathing your face and hands with cold water are very helpful habits. This healthy lifestyle must be accompanied by a diet rich in fruits and vegetables moderating the consumption of complex carbohydrates and animal proteins.

Outdoors, it is a good practice to frequently disinfect hands with the sanitizing gel and wear the personal protective equipment according to current regulations, even if it is hot. It is advisable to go out during the cooler hours keeping at least one meter away from other people, avoiding direct sun exposure and crowded places.

At home, ensuring appropriate air exchange is useful to reduce the risk of virus transmission, natural ventilation ensures a better air exchange than air conditioning. Therefore, if an air conditioner is used, it is necessary to clean its filters often and also aerate the room. Moreover, it is best to follow the good house hygiene rules and choose detergents based on alcohol or bleach, in order to remove possible traces of the virus.

To help the most vulnerable people, it is necessary to learn more about the new modalities (telemedicine is one of these) which guarantee the assistance, the continuity of therapies and to carry out the necessary scheduled visits or clinical analyses. It would also be recommended to always ensure that vulnerable family members, friends and neighbours living alone receive support for groceries and medicines, so that they do not necessarily need to go out and can stay at home, both to protect against heat and to limit the risk of infection.