Holidaying in Europe during the heatwave? Health risks and how to avoid them

A doctor reveals the things you must do to stay safe in the heat.

For those of us in the UK who have experienced a lot of rainfall in July, it can be hard to believe that southern Europe is experiencing extreme heat. But record-breaking temperatures of above 45°C (113°F) have been seen in parts of Spain. And 23 cities in Italy have been issued red alerts for extreme heat. Meanwhile, major evacuations have taken place on the Greek islands of Rhodes and Corfu, leaving holidaymakers stranded. With the Europe heatwave set to continue into August, the World Meteorological Organization has issued health warnings. 

Caroline Abrahams, Age UK’s charity director, says: “Some of the temperatures being experienced are unprecedented and very dangerous for people of all ages, especially for the old, the young and anyone with a serious health condition.” If you are holidaying, or know someone who is, it’s important to take steps to protect your health. 

A temperature scale on a beach, showing high temperatures during a heatwave.Credit: Shutterstock/aleks333

Is it safe to travel? 

Some people are cancelling holidays, but is it safe to travel to these destinations? The latest advice from the UK Foreign Office is to “monitor local and international weather updates from the European Meteorological Society, check with your travel provider and follow the guidance of local authorities at all times”. Age UK says you might want to contact your travel provider and consider postponing your trip if you are worried about the effect of the heat on your health. 

Risks to health during the European heatwave

People are at increased risk of dehydration, sunburn, heat exhaustion and heatstroke during extreme heat. It’s important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of these. 

Dehydration

Dehydration happens when your body loses more fluids than it gains. It can be caused by spending too long in the sun. If left untreated, it can be dangerous and lead to other health problems. Dr Shane Roche, consultant physician in geriatric medicine for the NHS, says: “Older people are at particular risk, as they are known not to drink enough fluids even during normal temperatures. People who have co-morbidities, such as high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, are also at increased risk.” 

According to the NHS, symptoms of dehydration include: 

  • feeling thirsty 
  • dark yellow, strong-smelling pee 
  • peeing less often than usual 
  • feeling dizzy or lightheaded 
  • feeling tired 
  • a dry mouth, lips and tongue or skin 
  • sunken eyes 

Sunburn

The NHS classes sunburn as hot and sore skin caused by too much sun. It is usually self-treated and gets better within seven days. 

Sunburn typically means your skin may: 

  • feel hot to touch 
  • feel sore or painful 
  • flake or peel, usually a few days after you get sunburnt
  • blister if your sunburn is severe 
  • turn red or pink if you have white skin. Note that if you have black or brown skin, you may not notice a change in the colour of your skin.

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion can happen when your body overheats, during hot weather or exercise, for example. Although considered less severe than heatstroke, it can still be serious and can develop into heatstroke. 

Signs of heat exhaustion are: 

  • tiredness 
  • dizziness 
  • headache 
  • feeling sick or being sick 
  • excessive sweating
  • arm, leg and stomach cramps
  • fast breathing or heartbeat 
  • a high temperature 
  • being very thirsty 
  • weakness 

Heatstroke

Heatstroke can also happen when your body becomes too hot, or as a development from heat exhaustion. It is the most severe form of heat illness and requires immediate medical attention. 

You should seek medical help if you or someone with you develops the following symptoms: 

  • remaining unwell after 30 minutes of resting in a cool place, being cooled and drinking fluids 
  • a very high temperature
  • hot skin that’s not producing sweat and might look red (this can be harder to see on brown and black skin)
  • a fast heartbeat 
  • fast breathing or shortness of breath 
  • confusion and lack of coordination 
  • having a seizure or fit 
  • loss of consciousness  

How to stay safe during the European heatwave

Roche and Age UK provide their top tips for avoiding these health risks and staying cool in the heatwave. 

Man splashing his face with water to keep cool in the heat.Credit: Shutterstock/PeopleImages.com – Yuri A

Drink more fluid than usual

Roche explains that staying hydrated is even more important in hot weather. We need to increase our fluid intake from the daily recommended amount of six to eight glasses and sipping regularly might be better than gulping large amounts in one go. Roche advises drinking cool water but also sports drinks, which contain electrolytes, to replace those lost through sweat. Milk and herbal teas are also a good option for hydration. Age UK says to Always take water with you when travelling and limit alcoholic drinks, as these can increase the risk of dehydration.” The charity also suggests eating foods that have a high water content, such as cucumber, lettuce and fruits. 

Stay inside during the hottest part of the day

This is between 11am and 3pm in Europe. “Some places are advising their citizens to stay indoors throughout the day. While this may be frustrating if you were planning lots of sightseeing, it would be sensible to follow the locals’ example, says Age UK. When you do go out, stick to the shade. 

Use a sensible SPF sun cream and keep it topped up

Roche says to apply a minimum of factor 20 sun cream every two hours. You might want to consider using factor 30 or 50 to protect your skin for longer and better. In advice that would also apply to hot weather in the UK, Age UK adds: “Make sure you don’t miss any spots – it can be easy to forget bald patches, for example.” And, remember, “UV levels can still be harmful when it’s cloudy.”

Keep your inside environment cool

During the day, closing curtains or blinds can make a significant difference,” says Roche. Age UK adds: “Identify the coolest room in the house so you know where to go to keep cool and only open windows in the evening when the temperature has reduced.” 

Wear suitable clothing

Remove all unnecessary clothing,” says Roche. Where this isn’t possible, Age UK recommends avoiding wearing darkcoloured clothing, as it absorbs the light and can make you feel warmer. Opt for light-coloured, loose cotton clothing instead. Make sure to wear a hat outside to protect your head, too. 

Cool your skin

Age UK suggests: “Have cool baths or showers, splash yourself with cool water and sprinkle your clothes with water regularly.” Roche adds that placing a cold pack, wrapped in a cloth, under your armpits or on your neck can help with temperature regulation. 

Find dedicated “cool spots”

Age UK says: “If where you are staying is air conditioned, you should be safe and comfortable, but if it’s not, you may want to take advantage of ‘cool spots’ that some very hot regions have set up in places such as public libraries. [If you haven’t gone yet] check with your accommodation provider to see if there is air conditioning included. 

Keep medications refrigerated

Age UK explains that most medication should be kept below 25°C (77°F) so if you take medication, it might be best to put it in the fridge when the weather’s really hot. Check your medication label or leaflet to see how yours should be stored. 

Look out for frail and older people, or those coping with health issues

“Check in on them, especially if they are at higher risk of becoming unwell in extreme temperatures,” says Age UK. “If you are at higher risk, ask others to do the same for you. 

Gemma Harris

Written by Gemma Harris she/her

Updated:

Gemma Harris has been a journalist for over seven years and is a self-confessed health and wellbeing enthusiast, which led her to specialise in health journalism. During her career, she has worked with top editors in the industry and taken on multiple high-discipline fitness challenges for certain outlets. She is particularly passionate about nutrition; after being diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome in 2016, she discovered her fascination for gut health and founded thegutchoice.com – a dedicated space for providing a hopeful outcome for people with gut issues. Gemma’s core aim is to help others through her writing.

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