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Climate Change is a Threat to Health: Heat-Related Illnesses

As the average global temperature increases, heat waves are expected to become more frequent, more intense, and longer-lasting. Extreme heat can have lethal consequences.

Exposure to high temperature can result in increases in heat-related ailments, mostly caused by a reduction in, or collapse of, the body's ability to shed heat by circulatory changes and sweating.

Common health problems resulting from exposure to extreme heat include heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Severe cases of heat stroke may result in death.

The heat wave that struck Europe in the summer of 2003 claimed the lives of more than 22,000 people in a tragic example of what may occur more regularly as global warming continues.

If a heat wave of similar magnitude were to occur in the United Sates, heat-related deaths would surge to more than five times the current average. 

More frequent and intense heat also has other major health consequences. Long lasting bouts of heat exacerbate stress and symptoms of mental illness, increase chance of dehydration, harm agriculture, and increase ozone in the atmosphere. Ground-level ozone can cause serious respiratory and cardiovascular harm.

The elderly, infants and children, people suffering form chronic illness, and the urban poor are especially vulnerable to heat-related illness, as their bodies are less capable of coping with the stress of excessive heat. 

To learn more about heat-realted illnesses, download PSR's Heat Factsheet (PDF)

To learn more about the effects of heat and ozone on health, see "More Heat, More Ozone".