Al sicuro dalla canicola: le indicazioni dell’OMS sulla tutela della salute in tempi di temperature estreme”

The recent extremely hot weather across the WHO European Region has affected the health of many residents. This has been compounded by an unprecedented number of wildfires that have destroyed homes, endangered lives and displaced thousands. We spoke to James Creswick, Technical Officer for communications at the WHO European Centre for Environment and Health, to find out how you can protect yourself in the heat and reduce the risk of harm from wildfires.

What kind of health issues can heatwaves cause?

Heatwaves are of particular concern for older people, infants, those who work outdoors and those who are chronically ill. Prolonged heat exposure can exacerbate existing conditions like cardiovascular, respiratory and kidney diseases, as well as mental health problems. It can also lead to heat exhaustion, and – even worse – cause heat stroke.

What can people do to reduce the negative health effects of hot weather?

We strongly recommend following our #KeepCool advice to look after yourself in the heat:

  • Keep out of the heat as best as possible, including at night, avoiding strenuous physical activity and ensuring children and animals are not left in parked vehicles.
  • Keep your body cool and hydrated. Use light and loose-fitting clothing and light bed linen, take cool showers or baths, and drink regularly while avoiding alcoholic, caffeinated and sugary drinks. If necessary and possible, try to spend 2–3 hours of the day in a cool place.
  • Keep your home cool. Use the night air to cool down your home by opening windows, and reduce the heat load inside your apartment or house during the day by using blinds or shutters and turning off non-essential appliances.

Seek medical advice if you are suffering from a chronic condition or are taking multiple medications. If you feel dizzy, weak or anxious, or experience intense thirst and headaches, move to a cooler place. Help others by checking on family and friends, including elderly people living alone.

What dangers do wildfires pose?

Close to the fires, smoke is a health risk because vegetation fires generate toxic gases and particles. Smoke can cause eye and respiratory tract irritation, but inhaling smoke can also cause more serious short- and long-term problems, including reduced lung function, bronchitis, exacerbated asthma and premature death. Children and elderly people are at greatest risk.

Even far away from the blaze, smoke from wildfires can contribute to higher exposures to air pollution. The fine particles in smoke can penetrate deep into lung passageways and enter the bloodstream. This can result in long-term cardiovascular and breathing issues.

What is the best way to protect yourself from wildfires?

If there are wildfires in your area:

  • Stay indoors if it is safe to do so. When air pollution is high, everyone, especially children and the elderly, should stay indoors as much as possible and avoid opening windows. Follow local emergency instructions on whether to relocate or evacuate.
  • Keep your home cool and reduce other sources of indoor air pollution – such as smoking cigarettes, using propane or wood stoves, spraying aerosol products and frying or grilling food. Close windows and shutters when you can. Move to the coolest room in the home, especially at night.
  • If you are particularly at risk from the effects of smoke, stay in air-conditioned rooms, which generally have fewer outdoor particles than buildings with open windows for ventilation. If you must go outdoors, wear a mask, especially if you are exposed to higher concentrations of particulate matter.
  • Travel only when necessary. If travel is essential, drivers should turn on headlights during the day to improve conspicuousness and visibility.


What should you do if you or someone else gets burned or is caught up in a wildfire?

Make sure you follow these 6 tips.

  1. Do not attempt to do anything until you and any affected people are safely away from the fire.
  2. Remove any clothing that has caught alight.
  3. Extinguish flames by allowing the person to roll on the ground, by applying a blanket, or by using water or other flame-extinguishing liquids.
  4. Keep the burned area in contact with cool water for 20–30 minutes.
  5. Do not apply ice, pastes or oils to the burned area.
  6. Seek medical care.

Are there places that vulnerable people can relocate to during outbreaks of wildfires?

For vulnerable people, it is beneficial to stay in buildings that are better protected from or further away from smoke sources and in cooler environments. Monitor and follow the recommendations of local health or emergency authorities throughout the period of fires. There may be schools, child-care centres, retirement homes, nursing homes, hospitals and hospices that can provide air-conditioned rooms for susceptible individuals. You may find air-conditioned emergency shelters with adequate particle filtration located inside large commercial buildings, educational facilities or shopping centres.

Are we going to see more heatwaves and wildfires in the European Region?

Climate change is expected to significantly increase people’s exposure to heatwaves, and European summers are likely to become both warmer and drier. Increasingly urban populations will experience more temperature extremes, and these effects may be felt most strongly in countries with ageing populations, as we see in the majority of countries in the European Region. This could translate to more people suffering from ill health, more deaths and a greater burden on health systems.

What guidance does WHO/Europe offer to Member States affected by heatwaves and wildfires?

In the past 50 years, nearly 140 000 people in the European Region have died due to extreme temperatures, which, alongside other weather-related disasters, have caused US$ 476.5 billion worth of economic damage. WHO/Europe calls on countries to take measures to avoid the adverse health impacts of extreme temperatures.

WHO/Europe guidance supports national and local authorities in essential preparation for extreme heat events. When operational, comprehensive heat–health action plans have been shown to save lives and strengthen the resilience of communities and people to cope during extreme heat. WHO guidance and heat–health action plans provide practical advice to the public and medical professionals on how to respond to heatwaves, as well as advice aimed at those tending to patients and individuals in hospitals and other care facilities, including elderly care homes.

Long-term projects, such as urban planning and design can support adaptation and resilience to heatwaves, but most importantly we need action to effectively tackle the root causes of climate change.