Exactly How Climate Change Harms Your Health—And 9 Things You Can Do About It

It's not just an environmental issue.

August 29, 2017

When you think of global warming, you may imagine crazy weather patterns or melting glaciers. It’s a faraway problem that will have terrible implications for the future, right? However, a new report shows that climate change is harming human health across the United States now.

The report, released by the Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health—an organization of 12 medical societies representing over half of the nation’s doctors, outlines eight ways that climate change directly harms physical and mental health. These include extreme heat and weather events, air pollution, contaminated food and water, tick- and mosquito-borne infections, and threats to nutrition.

(On just a quarter-acre of land, you can produce fresh, organic food for a family of four—year-round. Rodale's The Backyard Homestead shows you how; get your copy today.)

For each direct health threat, the report breaks down what’s happening, how it harms your health, and who is at risk. The report breaks down how these threats vary by region—wildfires in the west and tick-borne infections in the Northeast. (Here's exactly what you should do if you think you have Lyme disease.)

“As physicians, we want to make sure that everyone knows about the effects of climate change on health,” says Dr. Julie Wood, Senior Vice President for the American Academy of Family Physicians and a member of the Consortium’s Steering Committee. She says that most people see climate change as an environmental issue rather than a health one. In fact, the report states that only 32 percent of Americans could name a specific way in which climate change harms health.

Related: 9 Little Things You Can Do To Fight Climate Change Every Day

Take air pollution, for example. Together with global warming, it makes it harder to breathe, especially for those with asthma and allergies. While poor air quality from car exhaust is one clear factor, warmer temperatures also lead to a greater risk of wildfires, releasing harmful particulates into the air, and a longer allergy season. (Here's what happened when one woman ditched her allergy meds and tried rinsing her sinuses instead.)

“The pollen season is starting earlier and lasting longer, due to the warmer weather,” says Dr. David Peden, member of the Consortium’s Steering Committee, President of American Academy of Allergy Asthma, and Immunology and Professor of Pediatrics at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine. The pollen is also more potent.

Related: Can Honey Actually Help Cure Your Seasonal Allergies?

According to the report, the warmer climate not only increases the number of insects that carry illnesses like Lyme Disease or West Nile Virus but also the geographical range too. In fact, NPR recently reported on the rise of tick-borne diseases across the U.S. Dr. Peden notes that he’s seen an uptick in concerns related to insects such as fire ants and yellow jackets too.

Extreme heat and weather events, such as droughts and flooding, also have a direct impact on health in addition to storm-related injury. Following heavy rainfall, storm water and sewage may mix, contaminating drinking water and even lakes and rivers where you may swim. (Here's how to check if your local tap water is safe to drink.) What’s more surprising is that these weather-related events are also impacting the nutritional value of our food such as wheat, rice, barley, and potatoes. Due to the greater amount of carbon dioxide in the air, plants produce less protein and more sugar and starch.

While climate change may feel like a giant (and scary) problem, there are things you can do now to recognize and mitigate your risk for climate-related health concerns.

child drinking
Listen To Heat Alerts

Higher temperatures can lead to heat-related illnesses like heat stroke. It can also make some chronic illness worse. On heat alert days, Dr. Wood recommends staying inside in a cool place and to drink more water since you’re more likely to dehydrate, especially vulnerable populations such as the elderly, children, pregnant women, athletes, and people who work outside.

(Stay cool on hot days with a probiotic kombucha slushie—see how to make it in the video below.)

Know The Signs Of Heat Related Illness

Some signs of heat-related illness aren’t what you would expect. Look for symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, dizziness, shortness of breath, decreased sweating, rapid heart rate, and confusion. If you or someone experiences these symptoms, seek medical attention.

Related: Why Your Body Isn't Thrilled About Humid Days Either

child at window
Laura Natividad/getty
Pay Attention To Bad Air Days

As heat goes up, air quality goes down. On bad air days, heed the warnings and stay inside. Apps like the American Lung Association’s State of the Air app lets you check air quality by zip code. If you do need to be outside, limit your exposure to pollutants by heading out in the morning instead of late afternoon or early evening, when air quality is typically worse, according to Dr. Peden.

Know When The Allergy Season Starts

One of the best things you can do is control your response to allergens, says Dr. Peden. That means knowing when allergy season starts and being prepared. “The earlier you start your allergy medications, the more protection and longer duration of protection you’ll have,” he says. Check the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology’s National Allergy Bureau for information on pollen and mold levels in your community.

Related: How To Get Rid Of Mold And Mildew Naturally

Consider A Dehumidifier

As heat and humidity levels rise, dehumidification is an important step to control mold and mildew growth, which can cause adverse health effects. “It can affect indoor air pollution, which we don’t typically associate with climate change,” says Dr. Peden. “Humidity control is important.” (Here are 7 steps you should be taking to detox the air inside your home.) Your local hardware store likely carries one, or you can order one online. The Frigidaire 50-Pint dehumidifier ($200) is Energy Star rated and has a 4-star rating (our of over 11,000 reviews) on amazon.com.

Houseplants are another way to improve indoor air quality—this woman keeps almost 700 of them:

mosquito bite
Watch For Bugs And Ticks

Since mosquitoes and ticks can be carriers of illness and disease, it’s important to take precautions when you’re outside, says Dr. Wood. If you’re hiking or spending time in wooded areas, cover up your ankles and legs. Be sure to do a thorough tick check when you head inside.

Related: The Only 4 Natural Insect Repellents That Actually Work

bike rider
Jordan Siemens/getty
Bike And Walk More

Since car exhaust is a main contributor to global warming, reducing fossil fuel consumption is a key way to mitigate the effects of climate change. Consider taking public transportation to reduce your carbon footprint. Or bike or walk when you can, which is not only good for the environment but good for your overall health.

Related: 7 Incredible Results You'll Get From Walking 30 Minutes A Day

washing apples
Wash Your Fruits And Vegetables

Be sure to wash off fruits and vegetables. Since global warming increases the risk for agriculture pests, farmers are using more pesticides, she says. (Here are the 12 fruits and vegetables with the most pesticides.)

paint on hands
Speak Up

If you’re concerned about climate change and global warming, you can support organizations working on the issue, such as Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Or find climate-focused projects and campaigns on 350.org. If you’re a physician, the Consortium has several resources available to help educate patients about the link between climate change and health. 

And don’t be afraid to speak up. “If this is an issue that you’re concerned about, it’s important to let public decision makers know,” says Dr. Peden.