Climate change is a serious threat to human health and well-being. The World Health Organization has called it the greatest global threat to human health in the 21st century, warning that its effects could be catastrophic. The impact of climate change on human health is broad and varied. It can have direct effects by increasing the risk of contracting certain diseases or increasing their prevalence, as well as indirect ones by triggering other factors that are harmful to our health. This article looks at some of the potential health effects of climate change, what you can do to protect yourself from these risks, and tips for staying safe in a warming world.
Temperatures climbing may hamper good sleep
As temperatures rise, so does the frequency of sleepless nights. This is due to two factors: Temperature affects our core body temperature, and sleep is regulated by the circadian rhythm. A core body temperature of around 37°C is generally required for the brain to induce sleepiness. As ambient temperatures rise, our core body temperature increases, making it harder to drop below the threshold for sleep. A higher ambient temperature can increase the time taken to fall asleep by anywhere between 10 and 15 minutes per degree Celsius. Higher temperatures can also prolong the amount of time it takes to get back to sleep once you wake up during the night, which is known as the wake-sleep cycle. If sustained over some time, these effects on sleep can have both physical and mental health consequences.
Weather patterns may affect the spread of infectious diseases
As our climate changes, some infectious diseases may become more common while others become less so. Infectious diseases are transmitted through the transfer of pathogens from one organism to another. These pathogens can be living organisms (such as bacteria, viruses, or parasites), or they can be inert substances (such as toxins or allergens). A changing climate can affect how these pathogens spread through a population by altering the ecology and/or demography of the areas where they are present.
For example, the ways pathogens are transmitted could change due to an increase in the number of vectors – the organisms that carry and transmit the disease to humans – or an increase in the amount of contact between hosts and vectors due to the changing weather.
It may be harder to breathe due to air pollution
The air quality will decline as climate change continues, with severe impacts on human health. More people will die prematurely due to an increase in particulate matter in the air. Air pollution may also have longer-term effects on health, such as triggering chronic diseases.
For example, air pollution has been linked to the development of asthma, which is a condition that affects almost 300 million people worldwide and can cause lifelong symptoms. Air pollution has also been associated with an increase in the prevalence of dementia, as well as with an increased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Allergies and skin diseases are often worse during times of more pollen
Climate change is expected to increase the frequency and intensity of pollination seasons. While this is likely to be good news for pollinators, it will also mean more pollen in the air. This might not be as bad for people with pollen allergies since the warmer temperatures would decrease the amount of pollen produced by plants.
However, warming could also result in plants being pollinated at an earlier date, meaning more pollen would be released earlier in the year. This could result in more people suffering from allergies.
Eco-anxiety may harm mental health
As the world warms, so too do people’s fears about its future. This phenomenon is referred to as eco-anxiety and could have a serious effect on the mental health of people across the globe. Eco-anxiety is a complex set of feelings, usually involving worry, sadness, and feeling overwhelmed. In extreme cases, it has been linked to feelings of helplessness, despair, and suicide.
Eco-anxiety may be triggered by a wide range of phenomena, such as the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, the loss of biodiversity, and the opening of new trade routes that bring invasive species to new ecosystems.
High temperatures can exacerbate chronic health conditions
Extreme temperatures can make existing chronic health conditions worse, and trigger new ones. Some of these heat-related health risks include the development of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, the exacerbation of allergies and asthma, dehydration, and the worsening of certain mental illnesses. For example, high temperatures can increase the risk of dehydration by increasing water loss through sweating and urine production. Dehydration can have serious implications for our health, and even be fatal when sustained over a long period.
Climate change may not be the most visible threat to our health, but it is certainly one of the most serious. As temperatures rise, so too do the risks of premature death and illness. A warming planet could also change the spread of infectious diseases and alter the ecology of the areas where pathogens are present. These changes could lead to an increase in the prevalence of allergies and skin diseases, as well as a worsening of existing mental illnesses. No matter how much we talk about climate change and the effects it can cause, real change will only happen when we act. Every person can make a difference when it comes to climate change, and it all starts with small steps we can all make to reduce our carbon footprint.