On May 26, 2021

What I tell my patients in a warming world

Dear Editor,

Many people don’t realize that global weather patterns can actually have a bearing on their health. I consider it part of my responsibility as a medical professional to explain these challenges to my patients, especially as the weather starts to get unseasonably warm.

During physicals, I remind patients of all ages to check for ticks. A warming climate has caused an increased distribution and abundance of the ticks that cause Lyme Disease and other illnesses. This is a cause of anxiety for patients, and prevention is possible, with proper dress and diligence. 

I also advise patients that they could have new or worsened allergy symptoms. A longer growing season and more carbon dioxide in the air means more pollen, which causes more allergy cases, as well as worsened seasonal allergies and asthma attacks in those who already suffer from these ailments.

Many of my patients—the elderly and those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, hypertension, or coronary artery disease—need to be very careful in the summer months. Summers are getting hotter due to global warming—the last decade has been the hottest on record. I advise patients with these co-morbidities not to go outside in the summer during the most intense heat from 12-2 p.m., as this could lead to accidents or exacerbations of their illnesses. 

For patients with hypertension (high blood pressure) or heart failure, I remind them that some of their medications predispose them to dehydration and other dangerous symptoms in higher temperatures. Patients who have hypertension but are otherwise healthy often don’t realize that they are at increased risk, too.

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought my patients’ health concerns into greater focus. It has become clear that Covid can cause scarring in the lungs, damage to heart muscle, and other cardiovascular concerns. Thus, people with Covid are likely also more vulnerable to heat waves.

For these, and so many other reasons, I fully support any measures we can take to combat the climate crisis. The Vermont Climate Council, a group established by the Global Warming Solutions Act, is planning how Vermont can reduce our emissions while creating jobs, improving resilience, and bolstering people most affected by climate change. 

It astounds me that weather reports have become polarizing. The amount of carbon dioxide in our air, the shrinking depths of our ice caps, the record temperatures we’ve been experiencing: these are all calculations, measured by scientists. 

Climate data is objective, not partisan. 

People may disagree with what to do with that data, but not deny that reality. 

As the summer approaches, I hope that everyone, regardless of preexisting health conditions or beliefs about the changing climate, takes precautions around the issues mentioned above. Please advise your loved ones to do the same. Concern for the health of our bodies and our planet should be something we all share, because we all have bodies, and we all live on Earth. 

As the Covid pandemic has illustrated, there are issues that require us to come together and use science, public health, and policy to help guide us toward solutions to global problems. We are rising to the challenge posed by Covid.  Let’s also work in concert on climate change, supporting ways to lower carbon pollution, which will improve our health.

Megan Malgeri, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. She practices at the UVMMC-Family Medicine-Milton site.

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