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Disability And The Heatwave: Cooling Solutions And Disability As Weather Alert Goes Red

July 18, 2022

The current heatwave is causing all sorts of challenges to daily life from difficulties in sleeping to sweating through the commute, but for disabled people and those with mental ill-health, the heat can add many more serious complications and frustrations, but there are also solutions.

BBC Access All podcast presenter Emma Tracey has been blind since birth. She has some light perception and while the heat doesn’t directly affect her, protecting herself from the sun’s rays can be difficult when she wants to get out and about.

“I don’t wear sunglasses because they dim my light perception,” she says. “I normally look at the darkness of objects either side of me to keep myself in a straight line, that’s less easy with sunglasses on. “

Emma also uses echolocation – listening to sounds bouncing off nearby hard surfaces to judge where she is, spatially.

But, in order to hear those echoes, she also has to give up another piece of vital sun protection.

“I don’t wear a hat because it messes up my sound shadows. When I wear a sunhat, with a brim or a peak, that changes the sounds I hear and makes it more difficult to get the information I need from my surroundings.”

Emma doesn’t currently use a guide dog, but for those who do, Guide Dogs UK has some advice about when and when not to work them.

“Test out a pavement by putting your hand on it for a few seconds. If it’s too hot for your hand, then it’s too hot for your dog.”

While Emma’s experience is quite unique, thousands of people with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) have been struggling in this heat.

The MS Society says about 130,000 people have MS in the UK with 60% experiencing heat sensitivity.

MS stops messages from your brain and spinal chord reaching other parts of your body meaning that important instructions don’t get through.

It occurs when the immune system attacks the sheath surrounding nerves.

As temperatures rise, so messages are further disrupted.

Dr Sarah Rawlings, from the society, says: “For many people, their symptoms get worse – balance, fatigue and changes to vision – which can be difficult to deal with.”

Sabrina Fox, 31, from Scunthorpe, has primary progressive MS and says she has “struggled” these last few days with painful muscle spasms.

“The spasms in my legs are more intense when it’s really hot. They increase when I’m in bed because I’m not mobile so I stiffen up overnight and the medication can cause me to overheat.”

As much as she enjoys the summer days it has made going out difficult and has affected her sleep at night which in turn exacerbates her brain fog and fatigue.

“I’ll be in the middle of a sentence and I’ll completely lose my train of thought,” she says. “My top tip would be to pace yourself.”

The Met Office has issued a red extreme heat weather warning for parts England and Wales between Sunday and Tuesday due to the potential high temperatures and the impact it could have on health and transport.

But Dr Rawlings says once the temperature cools, any exacerbation in symptoms will ease. “We don’t believe there are any long-term affects, but some people might feel fatigued for a few hours or days from over-heating.”

Tips from the MS Society

  • Have a cold bath or fill a hot bottle with ice
  • Run a cold tap and let the water flow over the inside of the wrists
  • Wear a cooling vest

Jo Southall, an occupational therapist, relies on her cooling vest to get through these sweaty days.

“I would quite like to be in the Arctic Circle right now,” she laughs. “But I’ve got a lot of strategies in place.”

Jo has hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome which affects her connective tissue and postural tachycardia syndrome, better known as PoTS, which is an abnormal increase in heart rate that occurs when she sits up or stands.

She says her sweat function goes awry in hot weather too and, as a result, causes dizziness, dehydration and “a massive increase in heart rate”.

She says the cooling vest “looks like body armour” and is worn over her clothes. The vest has slots in the front and back where cool packs -which freeze at 14 to 16 degrees – are inserted keeping her core cool.

She also uses a technique she calls “evaporation cooling”.

“One of the benefits of sweating is that it cools you down,” she says. “The downside of sweating is that you don’t just sweat out fluids you sweat out all of those useful electrolytes which help with circulation and your nervous system.”

To minimise the loss of electrolytes, which are useful minerals, Jo carries a spray bottle of water with her – “mist your clothes and your skin and let that evaporate instead,” she says.

One of the reasons this heatwave has felt so intense these past few days compared to foreign holidays is because the UK’s infrastructure isn’t built for for such hot temperatures.

Dr Katherine Fletcher, from Parkinson’s UK, says most people think of the neurological condition as just involving tremors, but patients are “also prone to struggling with their mental health” and fatigue.

“We know heatwaves are here to stay,” she says. “I think there are lots of things that can be done.”

Katherine says it’s about calling on the government to make changes and to adapt the infrastructure.

“That comes down to things like making sure people are financially able to buy fans and air con units – we all have lived in houses and flats that are just unbearable in heat.”

She also wants public transport to be upgraded.

“People still need to be encouraged to get out and about and I think, making sure public transport is adapted and has air con and is comfortable during the heat wave is really important.”

It’s not just those with a physical disability. Those living with mental illness can also be adversely affected with the heat impacting mood, sleep and medication.

Gemma Thickett from the charity Rethink Mental Illness, says certain medications affect temperature regulation “which means you might be more prone to overheating”.

She says this is often the case for those on antipsychotic medication – often prescribed for bipolar disorder or schizophrenia – and SSRIs – which alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

“Now is a good time to check the information leaflet that comes with your medication, or look online, to see if you need to be extra careful in this hot weather,” but adds, “there’s no need to panic”.

The heatwave is “another important reminder to prioritise your mental wellbeing and know what you need to do to stay well”.

Tips from Rethink Mental Illness

  • Some medications might mean you sweat more, so drink little and often, before you feel thirsty
  • A lack of sleep can be a trigger – try and keep your home cool by keeping windows open but shielded from sunlight
  • Adjust your routine by working from home or somewhere cooler, like a library, and avoid a sweaty journey
  • If you feel like your mental health is dipping, don’t hesitate to contact your GP or mental health team
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