As extreme heat warnings remain in place over much of Western Canada and the unprecedented weather moves east, experts warn many Canadians’ health could be at risk from the spike in temperatures.
Speaking to The National, Vancouver emergency room physician Dr. Daniel Kalla said he’s recently seen more patients coming in with heat-related symptoms “more than ever before” in his career.
Some were suffering from heat exhaustion and coping with symptoms like light-headedness, while others, he said, were seriously ill with heat stroke.
“People who are older, people who are on certain medications, substance users — are really at high risk,” Kalla said. “Their themo-regulatory systems just don’t work as well.”
So far the so-called “heat dome” has shattered more than 100 heat records across B.C., Alberta, Yukon and the N.W.T., with the B.C. village of Lytton registering the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada on Tuesday at 49.6 C.
On Tuesday, Vancouver police said they have been called to 65 sudden deaths and counting since the heat wave began, “with more casualties being reported by the hour,” while B.C. paramedics attended at least 187 ambulance calls over the weekend tied to heat exhaustion and another 52 related to heat stroke.
The heat dome’s health impacts won’t be known for a few weeks, when the data can be assessed, said Sarah Henderson, scientific director for Environmental Health Services at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.
“We definitely expect that there will be significant increased mortality associated with this heat,” she said, calling it “dangerously hot weather.”
Elderly, homeless, chronically ill at higher risk
Other medical experts agree certain segments of the population are most at risk of severe health outcomes from this kind of extreme heat.
“The elderly are the most at risk, and people with chronic disease, and usually there’s overlap,” said Dr. Scott Lear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, B.C.
Those chronic conditions can include heart disease, respiratory disease, and diabetes.
Hope Outreach Okanagan president Angie Lohr says senior citizens often don’t have vehicles to access cooling stations. She also says people living with homelessness and addiction face challenges to use those facilities.’
The drugs themselves make you overheated,” she said Wednesday to Chris Walker, the host of CBC’s Daybreak South. “Being incapable of moving into a cooling station … will literally [make them] pass away from dehydration.”
People who are obese or overexerting themselves in the heat — whether that’s through exercise, or an outdoor job like road construction — are also more at risk.
“No one feels comfortable in this heat,” Kalla said.
And if you or a loved one start vomiting, stop urinating, feel light-headed or faint, or experience symptoms such as confusion, seizures, or muscle contractions, it’s time to go to a hospital, he said.
According to Health Canada, if you think someone is having heat stroke, it’s best to seek emergency attention and help the person cool down by doing the following:
- Call 911.
- Move the person to a cool place.
- Apply cold water to their skin or clothing.
- Fan them constantly while you wait for help
Preventing heat-related health issues
To prevent those kinds of health issues, staying cool is imperative, and there are a number of strategies for doing so.
Medical experts recommend seeking shade instead of being in direct sunlight. If you are outside, be sure to wear a hat, sunscreen, and lightweight clothing to cover your skin.
Lear advised that people should stay hydrated by drinking enough water throughout the day.
He also acknowledged that sleeping is particularly difficult for people right now since most homes throughout the Pacific Northwest do not have air conditioning units, and the heat is not subsiding in the evenings.
“You might be dehydrated, actually, even waking up in the morning,” said Lear.
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