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A heatwave is any long period of very hot weather. In Australia, heatwaves usually range from 37°C to 42°C.

Preparing for a heatwave

  • If you have a medical condition, ask your doctor for advice about what to do during a heatwave
  • Plan ahead to reduce the risk of getting heat exhaustion or a heat-related illness
  • Think of simple ways to make your home or building cooler (e.g. install awnings, shade cloth or internal blinds or curtains on the sides of the building that face the sun)
  • Have any air conditioners serviced before the beginning of summer.

Heatwaves and health

During heatwaves, there is an increase in emergency calls from people suffering heat-related illnesses. While the very young and the elderly are most at risk, anyone can be affected.

Heat-related illness occurs when the body absorbs too much heat. This may happen slowly over a day or two of very hot weather. Act quickly to avoid serious—or even fatal—effects of fully developed heat stroke.

Seek medical advice if you are concerned for your or another's wellbeing.

In a severe heatwave:

  • you may get dehydrated and your body may overheat
  • overheating can cause a heat-related illness that irreversibly damages your body (including your brain) or can even kill you
  • heat-related illnesses can develop if heat exhaustion is left untreated, but can also occur suddenly, without warning.

View more information and get practical advice about heat-related illness.

Who is most at risk during a heatwave?

Although everyone is vulnerable to the effects of a heatwave, those most at risk are:

  • babies and children under 4
  • seniors and older people living alone
  • pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers
  • people taking medication that may interfere with the body’s ability to regulate temperature
  • people who exercise vigorously during a heatwave
  • overweight or obese people
  • anyone with
    • a chronic or mental illness
    • a health condition that may impair sweating
    • limited or poor mobility.

Preventing heat-related illness

Look after yourself and help friends, relatives and neighbours, particularly the vulnerable, elderly, or people with disability.

Drink water regularly

  • Drink 2 to 3 litres of water a day at regular intervals, even if you do not feel thirsty. If your fluid intake is limited on medical advice, ask your doctor how much you should drink during hot weather
  • Sports drinks do not replace water
  • Don't drink alcohol, soft drinks, tea or coffee—they worsen dehydration
  • Eat as you normally would but do try to eat cold foods, particularly salads and fruit
  • Avoid heavy protein foods (e.g. meat, dairy products) which raise body heat and increase fluid loss.

Keep out of the heat as much as possible

  • Plan your day to keep activity to a minimum during the hottest part of the day
  • If you can, avoid going out in the hottest part of the day (11am–3pm)
  • If you must go out, wear lightweight, light-coloured, loose, porous clothes, a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen and regularly rest in the shade and drink fluids
  • Avoid strenuous activities and gardening
  • Do not leave children, adults or animals in parked cars.

Stay as cool as possible

  • Wear appropriate clothing to suit the hot weather
  • Stay inside, in the coolest rooms in your home, as much as possible
  • Block out the sun during the day by closing curtains and blinds and keep windows closed while the room is cooler than it is outside
  • Open up windows and doors when there is a cool breeze, when the temperature inside rises and at night for ventilation
  • Use fans and air-conditioners at home to keep cool, or spend time in an air-conditioned library, community centre, shopping centre or cinema
  • Take frequent cool showers or baths and splash yourself several times a day with cold water, particularly your face and the back of your neck.

Monitor animals for heat stress

Animals can also be affected by heat-related illness. If you’re in charge of an animal (livestock or a pet) you have a duty of care to provide it with food, water and appropriate shelter.

Signs and symptoms of heat-related illness

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can still affect people who have been drinking lots of fluids. Heat stroke can affect people who have shown no earlier signs of heat exhaustion.

Watch out for the following signs and apply first aid or seek medical assistance:

  • sunburn
  • flushed or pale skin
  • heat risk or prickly heat
  • cramps
  • heat exhaustion
  • heat stroke
  • tiredness and weakness
  • fainting or collapsing
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • rapid pulse
  • changes to the level of consciousness (e.g. disorientation, drowsiness).

First aid

  • In an emergency, phone Triple Zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
  • Seek medical advice from your doctor, hospital or health clinic.
  • Sit or lay the person in a cool spot in the shade or under cover.
  • If the person is unconscious, lay them on their side.
  • Remove as much of the person’s clothing as possible and loosen tight clothing.
  • Cover the person with a sheet soaked with tap water (not iced water).
  • Use fans or air-conditioning to help the person cool down.
  • Give the person water to drink, if they can swallow.
Last updated
19 November, 2015

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