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How to cope with a heatwave in the UK

How to cope with a heatwave in the UK

If there's one thing Brits seem to be inherently terrible at, it's coping with heat. As soon as the temperatures soar, it becomes the only topic of conversation. But, despite all the moaning and groaning about not being able to sleep, it can be nice to get out into the sun - as long as you do so safely. We've got all the tips to stay safe amid a heatwave in the UK.

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When was the hottest day ever in the UK?

Amid a heatwave, Tuesday 19th July 2022 became the hottest day on record in the UK, with a temperature of 40.3°C being recorded at Coningsby in Lincolnshire at 3:12pm. This beat the previous record of 38.7°C, recorded in 2019, by 1.6°C.1

A total of 46 of the Met Office's stations recorded temperatures higher than the previous record of 38.7°C, including Heathrow (40.2°C), Pitsford (40.2°C), and Cambridge (39.9°C).

As a result of the heatwave, Ambulance Services were put on Level 4 alert, the highest possible, due to "extreme pressure". Services in the UK were urging people not to dial 999 unless there was a serious emergency. Instead, people were advised to dial 111, or to contact their GP or pharmacist.

How do heatwaves happen?

The Met Office defines a heatwave as "an extended period of hot weather relative to the expected conditions of the area at that time of year, which may be accompanied by high humidity". In other words, it's hotter for a longer period of time than you would expect, for where you are.2

Heatwaves tend to happen in summer when high pressures can persist for days. In the UK, this develops when jet streams - fast flowing, narrow air currents - move towards the north, resulting in persistent dry and sunny, settled weather.

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What temperature is considered a heatwave?

The World Meteorological Organisation states that a heatwave is when the daily maximum temperature is higher than the average maximum temperature by 5°C for five or more consecutive days. Thresholds for UK heatwaves vary by county. These were updated ahead of summer 2022, as in more recent years Britain has been experiencing warmer days throughout the year but especially in summertime.

So, temperatures classed as a heatwave 50 years ago were lower and similar to what we now experience in a normal summer. Also, heatwaves tended to be mainly in the southeast but as time has gone on, the rest of the UK has experienced hotter and hotter temperatures.

Why it's important to stay cool during a heatwave

Dr Ross Perry - GP and medical director of Cosmedics - says that staying cool and taking precautions during a heatwave are important, as experiencing heat exhaustion for an extended period of time can lead to heatstoke. The symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Feeling sick.

  • Dizziness.

  • Feeling faint.

  • Confusion.

  • Cramps.

  • Feeling thirsty.

"People tend to get heatstroke when they've had prolonged exposure to high temperatures combined with dehydration, which then leads to failure of the body's control system. In medical terms it's when the body temperature is greater than 40°C," says Dr Perry.

Those at greater risk of heatstroke are infants and those over the age of 65as body temperature is more difficult to regulate at these ages. You should also be checking any medication that you are taking that may impact your hydration levels.

If you think you might have a heat-related exhaustion or heatstroke, speak with your GP immediately or, in the UK, call 111. If you feel very unwell with fast breathing, having fits or losing consciousness, you must call 999.

Dr Perry adds that swollen fingers, toes, hands, and feet are common following exposure to heat, as it causes heat oedema. This swelling tends to be no cause for alarm, but you can reduce symptoms by taking breaks from the sun and drinking plenty of water.

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How to keep cool in a heatwave

Seek out the shade

Since sunny days are few and far between, it can be tempting to bask in those golden rays all day long when they do make an appearance. However, it's all about balance. Spending time in the shade offers a multitude of benefits, as well as reducing your risk of heatstroke:

  • Prevents skin from dehydrating.

  • Prevents hair from becoming burnt, brittle, and faded in colour.

  • Prevents dry eyes worsening due to the glare of the sun.

  • Prevents chapped lips.

  • Reduces risk of skin cancer, brown spots, and visible red veins.

  • Reduces risk of heat rash.

Remember to wear sunscreen

No one is too cool for sun cream - it is essential in protecting your skin from the sun's harmful UV rays, even on cloudy days. It is recommended that you wear an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or above while keeping an eye out for any changes in your skin throughout the day. Ideally, children and those with highest risk of skin cancer should be using SPF of 50 or more. Not only does sunscreen reduce your risk of skin cancer, it also prevents early signs of ageing, reduces inflammation, prevents skin discolouration, and, of course, reduces risk of sunburn.

Don't overdo the exercise

A light jog on a sunny day might sound idyllic, but don't go overboard because exercising while it's hot puts extra stress on your body. The combination of exercise and the humidity can increase your core body temperature, with you having more blood in circulation as an attempt to cool down. If you are going to be exercising and sweating in the heat, sunscreen is even more vital. It's recommended that you reapply roughly every two hours, depending on the specific sun cream and SPF you're wearing, and use a water-resistant product.

Stay hydrated

Remember to keep refilling your water bottle too, since your body loses fluids via sweating as well as breathing faster when you feel hot.

You should be drinking at least eight glasses of water over a normal day. This should be a lot more when its hotter. Don't wait until you feel thirsty to grab a drink - keep filling up your glass at regular intervals. If you're out and about, take a water bottle with you - you can buy insulated bottles that will keep your drinks cold. On hot days, you should steer clear of caffeine and try to reduce alcohol consumption, as these can dehydrate you more.

What to wear in a heatwave

Dr Perry's recommendations for the items you should have in your summer wardrobe to protect against heat include:

  • Light-coloured loose clothing to protect against permanent skin damage.

  • A wide-brimmed sun hat - at least 7.5 cm - to cover your face, head, and neck.

  • Sunglasses - to protect your eyes from the harmful effects of UV rays.

How to ease sunburn

If you do end up getting sunburnt, there are ways of easing it.

"What sunburnt skin needs more than anything is intensive moisture; therefore, any intense moisturiser will do the job. A moisturising after-sun containing aloe vera is a good choice, as it combines the soothing benefits of aloe vera with hydration. Above all, the key is to apply liberally and frequently, every hour or so, if necessary," explains Dr Perry.

Top tip: keep your moisturiser in the fridge and it will instantly cool hot and itchy skin when applied.

There is also anecdotal evidence supporting the use of natural aloe vera as a traditional herbal remedy for sunburn symptoms, with some people crediting its cooling and soothing feeling. However, there is no scientific evidence for this.

Other tips for easing sunburn include using a cold compress to relieve inflammation - which you can use every hour throughout the day.

So, whatever you get up to this summer, be safe and have fun!

Our top tips for staying well during a heatwave

  • Keep an eye on vulnerable neighbours and set up a call if you live alone or know someone who lives alone to check in on them.

  • Close curtains indoors to keep rooms cooler.

  • Seek shade and avoid the sun at its hottest between11 am and 3 pm.

  • Wear sun cream and cover up in loose clothing, hats and sunglasses.

  • Drink plenty of fluids, avoiding alcohol.

  • Never leave anyone - especially children and animals - in parked cars.

  • Keep an eye on the weather.

  • Ensure you have plenty of fluids when travelling and take regular breaks.

Further reading

  1. A milestone in UK climate history.

  2. Met Office - what is a heatwave?

Article history

The information on this page is peer reviewed by qualified clinicians.

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