For the last few months, the south-western parts of South Africa have eagerly awaited the time when the sun stops hiding behind grey banks of clouds. Summer has finally arrived and now that the days are longer and warmer, we may feel more inspired to hit the beach, have a picnic in the park or resume our favourite outdoor activities.
One of the perks of living in South Africa is that we get to enjoy a moderate climate throughout the year, characterised by mostly hot, sunny weather. While a sun-worshipping session seems like just the thing you need to recover from the dreary season behind you, summer bliss can also come at a cost to your health.
According to the South African Weather Service the likelihood of extreme warmer temperatures over most of South Africa is predicted to be high throughout the 2015-16 summer season. With this in mind, Hippo.co.za asked South African medical experts what health challenges these extreme temperatures can bring, and why it's best to keep your Medical Aid updated even after flu season has ended.
Food & Trees for Africa on climate change and human health
Is there a link between global warming and severe weather conditions?
“All the science points to it, yes. As global warming has increased, so have extreme weather events. Take a look on our African Climate Reality Project's Twitter feed (@ACRP) or Facebook page (African Climate Reality Project) for loads of links to research that backs this up.”
How are South African summers affected by current global warming trends and the greenhouse effect?
“Generally, the western half of the country is expected to get drier with reduced levels of precipitation while the eastern side is set to get wetter with higher levels of precipitation. Overall, though, South Africa is set to become a drier country.”
As one of the biggest coal burners in the world, how would you measure South Africa's contribution to global warming?
“South Africa is currently the 11th largest annual emitter of carbon dioxide in the world, according to the World Bank (that figure includes all sources of emissions, not just those from coal).”
What is the impact of climate change on human health, especially in a developing country such as South Africa?
“As the weather changes, people start struggling with the basics of life: keeping a roof over their heads in the face of tremendous storms, feeding themselves and their children in a world of droughts and floods and the consequent food scarcity. Add to this, getting their children educated in the face of flooding rivers or severe poverty that results from floods and droughts. Overall, then, there is a greater risk of disease and malnutrition as a result of climate change.”
Which South African provinces are generally affected more by extreme temperatures during the summer?
“Generally, the more northern and western the province is, the higher its daytime temperatures will be. Recent research also indicates that 2015 has been the hottest year on record.”
Down to Earth on ultraviolet (UV) exposure
What amount of exposure to the sun is enough to cause damage to the skin?
“It depends on your skin type, the time of day, season, location where you live and altitude.
There are three types of solar radiation, of which ultraviolet is the most dangerous. Visible light (which enables us to distinguish between colours) and infrared radiation (which we receive as heat) are the two types of radiation that does not normally cause health problems.
Ultraviolet radiation is the most damaging to human health. Usually, 20 minutes in the sun is enough for the body to produce vitamin D. Spending longer periods in the sun, especially without a high-SPF sunscreen can be dangerous to your skin.”
Is it a myth that one doesn't get sunburn on cloudy days?
“Yes it is. Up to 80 percent of radiation that cause skin damage can penetrate clouds.”
If already affected, how and where can South Africans seek treatment for sun-damaged skin?
“For mild sunburn, find after-sun lotions to soothe the skin at pharmacies, health shops and general stores. Home remedies, such as applying the gel from the leaves of the aloe vera plant, directly onto the sunburnt skin will work just as well to reduce inflammation and itchiness, and prevent peeling. For severe sunburn, see a medical practitioner.”
Safe exercise during the summer – contributed by Lisa Raleigh
“South African summers are scorchers and can pose very real threats to outdoor exercisers or those training in extreme temperatures. If you’re going to be battling the elements as the sun heats up, here are some important things to consider:
Time it right
Unless you are training for an event that will be held under the same conditions, avoid exercise in the middle of the day. 10am to 3pm are South Africa’s hottest hours, so stick to early morning or evening training, favouring the morning where possible.
Watch the weather
Keep your eye on weather forecasts and prepare yourself appropriately. If you are used to indoor exercise, start slow. Also, be especially cautious if you are new to exercise or unfit – your body may not tolerate heat as well.
Sunscreen is critical
Don’t be fooled by clouds on gloomy days. Sunscreen is a must, regardless of the weather and especially in summer. Take precautions and use an SPF over 30 to avoid burns and sun damage. Also, beware of exercising with sunburn, as your body battles to regulate your normal body temperature.
Stick to loose-fitting and light-coloured clothing in warm weather. Cotton helps to evaporate sweat off the body, whilst lighter colours will reflect the sun. If you can invest in your training gear, watch out for ‘high-tech’ clothing and shoes, which are specifically designed to keep you cool.
Hydration is essential in hot weather and can pose a serious threat if not taken seriously. Make sure you have had at least two glasses of water within the hour before your workout, and keep water with you as you train. You need to drink every 15 minutes into your workout, don’t simply wait until you’re thirsty. Also remember, it’s not just water you need to replace but important electrolytes and salts as well: consider a sports drink if you’re planning an intense or lengthy session, as these will replace precious potassium, sodium and chloride sources lost through exercise.
Consider moving your workouts indoors during summer or take your cardio to the pool, to avoid the heat. If exercising in extreme heat is unavoidable, try to avoid dramatic changes of temperatures before and after your session. Don’t move immediately into or out of an air-conditioned environment as the body will try to quickly rebalance itself with sudden temperature change, which may weaken your natural defence. Rather allow your body to cool or heat up naturally between extremes.
Pay attention to warning signs
In regular temperatures, your body can adjust to the heat. However, your body’s cooling systems can fail when you are faced with extreme temperatures, sweat in excess and don’t stay hydrated. Be attuned to your body and watch for signs of heat-related illness, including:
If you experience any of the above, you need to drink water and lower your body temperature immediately.”
When the weather warms up, there's no need to hide indoors and miss out on all the fun summer has to offer. Going out and staying on the move is vital for a healthy body and mind. In fact, the right amount of sun exposure has certain advantages to human health, such as the production of Vitamin D and mood elevation. But, before you go out and catch some sun and surf, make sure you are properly protected to reduce your risk of skin damage, dehydration and heat exhaustion, and that your Medical Aid is up to date to get the best healthcare for yourself and your family.