Australia can be a blistering place. It’s baking heat is caused by the sinking air of a subtropical high pressure belt, and its huge mass of inland desert, which can regularly elevate temperatures to 40°C and beyond. This is why there’s roughly five million air conditioning units across the country, cooling down our citizens, and keeping everyone safe1.
Overheating does more than make us sweaty and uncomfortable. When we’re overheated for long periods of time, it can eventually result in our body shutting down its organs, making it incredibly dangerous.
In this article, we’ll talk through some of the signs of body overheating, and how air conditioning reduces the risks by helping your body to regulate a safe temperature.
Signs of body overheating (heat exhaustion)
Australia broke its temperature records last year, recording a maximum temperature of 49.9°C in Nullarbor in South Australia. With world leaders continuing to show themselves as ineffective at tackling industrial-fuelled global warming, we can expect more records to be broken, and more deaths as a result of heatwaves.
Heatwaves are Australia’s deadliest natural hazard, with the elderly, young, and sick most at risk. They’re a particularly devastating problem for the elderly, who find themselves at a much higher risk due to decreased blood circulation, inefficient sweat glands, age-related illness, and medications2.
For this reason, it’s important for us to recognise the signs of body overheating, so that you can identify when you’ve slipped into danger, and take the necessary steps to cool yourself down.
Cold sweat with goosebumps
Your body temperature is regulated in the hypothalamus area of your brain. When it detects a fever, it will activate your body’s cooling mechanisms, which includes the raising of goosebumps across your skin.
We might usually associate goosebumps with helping us to stay warm, but they also help our bodies to release excess heat, by accelerating the evaporation of sweat from our skin5. When your body overheats, one of the telltale signs is being drenched with sweat, while also having goosebumps.
Your blood vessels become dilated when you’re overheated, which causes your body fluid to descend into your legs, and your blood pressure to drop. When this happens, you might begin to feel faint, lightheaded, or dizzy, and will need to cool down to fix the problem.
Similarly to the above, when we’re suffering from heat exhaustion, our blood pressure drops and our heart struggles to pump blood to our brain, which can make us feel extremely sleepy.
When our bodies become overheated, we may find our muscles start to cramp up. Scientists don’t know exactly what causes this to happen, but it’s suspected that a lack of essential minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium are to blame6. Sports drinks can help us to regain these minerals, and stave off the muscle cramps that accompany heat exhaustion.
Nausea is another symptom of heat exhaustion, and as with muscle cramps, is thought to be caused by a lack of essential minerals in our bodies.
Headaches are often caused by dehydration, with your body needing more water than is available. When combined with cold sweats and nausea, headaches can be a clear sign of heat exhaustion.
How air conditioning reduces the risk of body overheating
With temperatures continuing to rise as a result of global warming, air conditioning is an important tool for keeping our bodies at a safe temperature, and staving off the possibility of overheating. Air conditioning protects us from heat exhaustion in more ways that you might expect—here’s a breakdown of how it helps us.
Air conditioning lowers our core body temperature
The most obvious benefit to air conditioning is the reduction of air temperature, which reduces your body’s temperature to a safe range, and restores you to homeostasis. Your body’s natural cooling system is incredibly effective, releasing heat in the form of sweat, which eventually evaporates. The system only works up to a point though—when your body temperature rises above 39°C, you’re experiencing a high fever and can develop hyperthermia, which makes a cooling mechanism such as air conditioning vital for staying safe and healthy.
Reduction of humidity
As mentioned above, your body’s cooling system releases heat in the form of warm sweat, which eventually evaporates. If you live in Queensland or the Northern Territory, you’ll know that when it reaches a certain humidity level outside, your sweat sits on your skin and acts like a soggy heater, making it even harder to cool down. When an air conditioner is on cool mode, the refrigerant used in the system naturally removes humidity from the air, which helps the sticky warm sweat to evaporate from your skin, and reduces your body temperature.
Most air conditioners have a dehumidify mode too, which removes the moisture from the air and speeds up the evaporation process.
If you’ve thrashed your way through a scorching Brisbane night, you’ll know that one of the worst things about hot and humid temperatures is trying to sleep in them. And when you do finally manage to get to sleep, your body is at risk of overheating. Air conditioning solves the problem by regulating the temperature for you, so that you can get a good night’s sleep.
You might also find your bedroom’s temperature ok for falling asleep, but regularly wake up in the middle of the night, wallowing in pools of sweat. Again, air conditioning fixes the issue by maintaining a comfortable, optimum temperature for sleeping (around 18°C)3.
Reduced risk of dehydration
Excessive sweating causes us to lose water, which needs to be regularly topped up to prevent us from becoming dehydrated, especially if we’re exercising. Air conditioning helps us to stay hydrated by reducing the amount of sweat that our body produces, and when combined with plenty of water consumption, protects us from the ravages of heat exhaustion.
If you live in a property whose windows open fully, you might be worried about burglars coming through them in the middle of the night, and keep them closed. In the depths of summer, when nightly temperatures refuse to drop below 23°C, your bedroom can quickly become an oven that is horrible to sleep in. Air conditioning will keep the room cool, while calming your fears about undesirables climbing through the window.
With your bedroom windows closed, there’s the added bonus of less noise from passing traffic, howling dogs, and hissing possums. The white noise produced by an air conditioner can help some people to sleep better too.
A cool place to exercise
Exercise is one of the best things that we can do for ourselves. It helps to maintain a healthy weight, reduces your risk of heart disease, helps your body to manage blood sugar levels, and much more4.
Unfortunately, with COVID-19 re-surging in parts of the country, gyms are likely to remain closed for a long time. For many of us, the solution is moving our exercise routine to home, and when the heat returns over the next few months, without an air conditioner we’re at risk of overheating.
Heat exhaustion is a dangerous condition that can cause our organs to shut down, and is especially deadly for seniors, young kids, and people suffering from illness. Thankfully, air conditioning is one of the best ways for us to prevent heat exhaustion, and with global warming on the rise, is becoming a critical feature of our homes.
- 2020, Air Conditioning: Amazing Facts, BlueNRG
- Krisha McCoy, 2011, The Dangers of Overheating in Older Adults – Senior Health Center, Everyday Health
- Best Temperature to Sleep: Research and Sleep Tips, Healthline
- Benefits of Exercise, Medline Plus
- Goose bumps, Wikipedia
- Heat Cramps: Symptoms, Causes, Treatments, WebMD