On some days, you look out the window to check the skies for rain or snow. You stretch an arm out an open window to gauge the temperature or turn on the local news to find out the day's high. Day to day, the weather may decide your wardrobe or your route to work. Season to season, you may notice fluctuations from colds and flu to allergies and sunburns. But what about the climate and the overall quality of the weather over time? Can climate change impact your health?

Climate change in a nutshell

People use a lot of energy, and most of the energy we've used over the last century has been created through the burning of non-renewable fossil fuels. The fossil fuels we use - including the gas in our cars and the coal that still heats some homes - release carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere.

CO2 is also produced naturally by the environment and is an essential part of many natural processes, such as plant photosynthesis. CO2 is naturally regulated to keep the amount of it in balance between the atmosphere and the land and the ocean.

However, this CO2 and other greenhouse gases appear to be accumulating and trapping the sun's heat and radiation in the atmosphere. This increase of CO2 in the atmosphere is caused by the change in our climate: air and water temperatures have risen and weather patterns have begun to shift. Basically, we have managed to change the world's climate.

How climate change may affect your health

In the years to come, our world's climate will become warmer and more unpredictable. Climate change and global warming have been acknowledged by the World Health Organization (WHO) as a threat to human health, especially to those living in the poorest regions of the world.

The heat is on. Climate changes may bring about more frequent heat waves and the health problems that accompany extreme heat: heat stroke, dehydration, respiratory problems, and cardiovascular distress. With hot, dry conditions, some areas of the world may see more droughts and depleted crops, which would contribute to hunger and malnutrition. In urban areas, extreme heat can worsen smog and pollution. Unpredictable shifts in temperature can take people by surprise. The very young, the very old, and the very frail, tend to be most negatively impacted by heat waves.

Rain and its runoff. Inconsistent patterns of rain could result in more frequent catastrophic hurricanes and flooding. Floodwaters can compromise water safety and become breeding grounds and transporters for any number of waterborne illnesses. Floodwaters contaminated with human or animal waste can trigger diarrhea outbreaks due to bacteria, as with cholera, E. coli, and typhoid, or from viruses like hepatitis A.

Bugs spreading bugs. Insects and other animals act as vectors (carriers) of infectious diseases that can be transmitted to people. As the climate grows warmer, mosquitoes, ticks, and other disease vectors spread into new territories and live for longer periods of time than they normally would. With longer lives and wider reach, these vectors have new and more numerous opportunities to transmit infections like malaria, Lyme disease, or dengue fever.

Pollen and other allergens. Climate shifts could also shift the growth patterns of certain plants. This becomes troublesome when those plants are irritants or allergens. Scientists have noted proliferations of stronger, more abundant poison ivy, ragweed, and earlier onset of pollen season.

The climate has changed. Have you?

The climate is the context in which we live, and it's impossible to escape it. It also feels like the kind of thing over which you have little control. While you can't cool a heat wave or pacify a surging hurricane, you can begin to turn the climate tide through your own individual actions.

Be a proactive weather watcher. You can tune in to the weather report for a forecast of the temperature and overall conditions. Will it rain? Do I need a jacket? Warnings and bulletins alert people of pending extreme weather events, like tornadoes, tsunamis, or floods. Additional forecasts and advisories can warn you of various day-to-day fluctuations in atmospheric conditions.

Keep an eye on the barometric pressure and wind velocity, as factors like these can impact your health. Many news forecasts will issue UV warnings to rate the strength of the sun's ultraviolet radiation on a given day. Pollen levels and air quality indexes warn of days with high smog, pollution, or allergen levels. On days with higher warning levels, you would know to take extra precautions to protect your health. Some of these include:

  • wearing sunscreen, hat, and sunglasses to protect your skin and eyes from UV radiation
  • staying indoors during days of high smog, especially if you have medical conditions that can be affected by poor air quality (e.g., asthma)
  • drinking lots of water during extreme heat warnings to prevent dehydration

Help those who need it. Those who have limited resources to adapt to climate changes and extreme weather shifts can fall victim to the elements. During extreme weather shifts, remember those in your area who may need extra support: the elderly, the homeless, or the economically challenged. Act on the behalf of their health and safety by making material or financial donations to help provide fans or air conditioning and cooling units during a heat wave, blankets or coats during an intense cold snap, or shelter after a catastrophic storm.

Think globally, act locally. As you move through your days and make choices, the wider world should stay in your thoughts. Even if you live in a big city and work all day in an office, you are part of the natural world. The small decisions you make each day impact everyone else, albeit in gradual, cumulative ways:

  • carry reusable shopping bags instead of plastic bags
  • take public transit, carpool, walk, or ride a bike instead of driving your car
  • invest in a safe, reusable water bottle instead of buying single-serving plastic water bottles
  • turn off lights when you don't need them – switch to more efficient appliances, and shut them down when not in use
  • turn off the tap while you're brushing your teeth
  • wash laundry in cold or warm water instead of hot