Surviving a heatwave

Earlier this week, I blogged about the heatwave. Despite the fact that it gets really hot in Melbourne every year, hundreds of Aussies still suffer from heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and death due to exposure to extreme heat. Below are some tips collected from across the web as well as personal experience to help you stay cool and safe during one of Melbourne’s heatwaves.

The first thing to keep in mind is that a heatwave isn’t just normal summer heat. According to the City of Melbourne, a heatwave is an unusual and uncomfortable period of hot weather where the average of the daily maximum temperature and the overnight temperature of the following day is 30ºC (86°F) or greater, and negatively impacts health, community infrastructure, and services.

Heat-related illness can come on suddenly. You may feel okay, maybe just a little thirsty, and the next thing you know you’re pale, dizzy, and about to faint. Muscle spasms, clammy skin, rapid heart rate, cramps, headaches, nausea, and vomiting are also some signs of heat-related illness. If you start feeling any of these symptoms, stop what you’re doing, get out of the sun and into a cool place, increase your fluid intake, wet your skin if possible, and contact medical help. Listen to your body and don’t shrug it off if you start feeling bad.

Stay out of the sun. If possible, just stay home. Postpone your errands if you can; the heatwave will only last a few days, public transport will be a nightmare, and the shops are probably closed anyway.

If you don’t have air conditioning, staying cool at home can be challenging. Keep your home cool by keeping the blinds shut and the curtains drawn. Some people recommend opening the doors and windows, but I think that will only let hot air in. You do want ventilation, but if there’s no breeze, I’d leave the doors and windows shut until the evening. Then, turn on the fan and let it draw out the heat and pull in the cooler night air.

Turn off powerful appliances that give off a lot of heat and avoid cooking indoors as the stove and oven will only make the house hotter. Use the barbecue, eat cold foods, order in, or go out to dinner. Do make lots of ice and keep your drinks chilled.

Sleeping in the heat is really hard for me and I wish I had better tips for that. Basically, I just point the fan right at me. Energy is expensive in Australia and it’s perhaps the main reason so many Aussies forgo central cooling (though they say it’s because they’re being environmentally friendly and suffering for Mother Earth). Nevertheless, my partner Theo brought home a small mobile air conditioning unit and it’s the best thing ever. It’s small and not powerful enough to cool the entire house, but it’s perfect for the bedroom on those stifling hot nights. If I have to pay an extra $100 for using it four nights, so be it. 

 A cool shower before bed and ice packs can also help you sleep better. Other suggestions, which I haven’t tried, include chilling your pillowcase in the freezer, wearing damp socks to bed (we release a lot of heat through our head and feet), wearing a damp shirt to bed, and lightly spraying your sheets with cold water. There are a number of tips for creating a sort of air conditioning system, none of which I’ve tried. One is to blow the fan at a bowl or shallow pan of ice. Another is to hang a wet towel or sheet in front of  fan.

Alternatively, if you don’t have air conditioning and it’s just getting too hot at home, leave the house and go somewhere that does such as a shopping centre, the library, a museum, or the movie theatre. Make friends with someone who does have air conditioning (and uses it) and go there.

Maria Sharapova tries to cool down at last week's Australian Open.
Maria Sharapova tries to cool down at last week’s Australian Open. Photo by Aaron Favila, Associated Press.

Dress appropriately. If you must go out, wear lightweight, light-colored loose clothing. You might think that wearing as little as possible will keep you cooler, but actually, you’ll just end up feeling the sun burning your skin. It’s not a bad idea to cover up, just dress lightly. Slather on that sunblock every couple of hours and don’t forget your hat and sunglasses. Carry a little hand fan with you.

Drink plenty of water. Alcohol, caffeine, and beverages containing high amounts of sugar are dehydrating. Water is your friend. Carry it with you everywhere you go and refill your container every chance you get. Drink even if you don’t feel thirsty. By the time you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.

Never leave children, pets, or those that require special care in a parked car. Not even for a minute. Not even a few seconds. I can’t believe I have to say that.

Some people are more at risk than others during a heatwave – pregnant women, children, seniors, disabled people, the homeless, and visitors who may be unfamiliar with extreme heat. Contact anyone you know who may be at risk. Check in on them a couple times a day, every day.

Prepare an emergency kit. Power outages and fires are common during a heatwave. Be ready for them. ABC has a great bushfire plan.

Remember the critters. Animals also suffer as the temperature rises. Let them inside, put a cool damp towel on the floor for them to lie on, turn on a fan for them, and make sure they have plenty of cool water to drink. Rapid panting, excessive drooling, hot skin, twitching, and vomiting are all signs of heat stroke in an animal; call your vet immediately.

Keeping your pets indoors also helps the native wildlife that want to be closer to the ground during a heatwave. You can help them further by leaving tubs of cool water in shady spots.

Dog in a blue, plastic kiddie pool.
Photo by Blanka Jezierska, Facebook.

Emergency Agencies

In an emergency, you should always call 000 (triple-zero, as Aussie say). The operator will ask where your emergency is and whether you need police, the fire department, or an ambulance.

Do you have any tips for staying cool during a heatwave?



  • Laura

    Great tips, Cosette! I must also add that if you can’t wait to be able to go outside, then utilise mornings and late evenings to stay physically active. If you have access to the beach – go swimming, stand up paddle boarding, take your dog for a swim (that poor thing must be suffering as well). I have written a few other ideas for the cooler parts of the day:

    • Cosette

      Great tips. Thanks for sharing, Laura!