By Ayodele Renner
The world of exploration has fascinated me since I was a child. The voice of Sir David Attenborough narrating a wildlife documentary was a sure sign that an exotic and strange new world was on the television screen. The Arctic was one of such places. He would visit that frozen wilderness with his crew to bring images of how wildlife in all its gore and glory survives in such inclement conditions.
So, when I learnt about the bold plan by Ariston to provide heating for researchers working in Greenland, I became curious and excited. To investigate climate change, researchers from the University of Copenhagen set up camp on Disko Island, a region on the west coast of Greenland located in the Arctic Circle in the northern hemisphere where temperatures can drop as low as 50 degrees below freezing in winter. Were you to throw boiling water from a pitcher into the air in such conditions, it would turn to ice before it returned to the ground!
As a physician, I am acutely aware of the effects that exposure to extreme cold can have on the human body. From the loss of fingers to frostbite, to the complete shutdown of bodily functions due to dangerously slowed metabolism, extremely cold environments are inhospitable for people who venture into them. So the Ariston “Comfort Challenge” was an ambitious move to provide heating and warmth for the climate change researches, in a region where the temperature hardly rises above 10 degrees, even on the warmest days of the year.
Apart from constructing an energy-efficient and eco-friendly heated building, the scientists were provided with hot water, yes hot water, to make life a little more comfortable in an otherwise hostile place. This brings me to the matter at hand. Hot water and why it is almost synonymous with comfort. In the tropics, one might imagine there isn’t a need for the use of hot water because our climate is rather hot. Well, that might not be the entire picture. Think of a newborn baby. Would you rather bathe the child in warm or cold water? Your guess is as good as mine. Warm water is more likely to keep the temperature of the infant well regulated. The Nationwide Children’s hospital in the US recommends that the bathing water for an infant should be about 37 to 38 degrees centigrade. But I don’t know anyone who measures the temperature of the water they want to bathe their children in. However, this benefit comes with a note of caution. The frequency of burns injuries, which have resulted from children crawling or running into a bowl of scalding hot water left unattended by a care giver, is not negligible.
However, an important preventive strategy for the prevention of burns injuries to children as a result of hot water scalds from preparations to bathe the child is the installation of heating mechanisms that can regulate the temperature of the water that comes out of the taps such that it never exceeds a set temperature. This almost entirely eliminates the risk of burns in infants and gives the full benefit of bathing infants in warm water.
The care of utensils used for the feeding of infants also requires that hot water be used for both washing and sterilisation. These utensils have the potential to harbour germs which can cause diarrhoeal illness in these children. While there are various methods of sterilising these utensils, the use of hot water or steam is one of the most effective ways of getting them clean. Sometimes during the process of labour and delivery, the mother may sustain tears or lacerations to their genitals. After these lacerations have been sutured, some mothers may still require what is referred to as a Sitz Bath. In this procedure, the mother is asked to sit in a bath that has warm water in it to a depth that one can comfortably sit in. Some doctors may ask the mother to add salt or vinegar to the water but that is entirely optional. This procedure encourages healing, relives itching and irritation of the genital area and soothes pain. It also cleanses the area of debris from the procedure or the tear. Just imagine the convenience of just opening a tap and hot water comes right out of it for a mother to dilute for the Sitz bath.
For adults, the health benefits of bathing with warm water are significant. A warm or hot shower enhances sleep. Research has demonstrated that a hot shower before bed has the effect of reducing one’s core temperature. The effect of this reduction in core temperature is a signal to the body that it is time to sleep. This reduction in temperature happens when blood vessels in the skin open up in response to a hot bath, thereby allowing the head in these blood vessels to escape from the body.
In a finding by a team of researchers in the University of Texas in Austin, people who took a bath with water that was between 40 to 43 degrees Celsius, one to two hours before going to bed was linked to a better quality of sleep. Dermatologists recommend hot water baths as a means to rid the skin of dirt as well as the opening of the skin pores to release trapped dirt and oils. That’s not all. Hot water baths have also been found to be good muscle relaxants. So after a long walk or a strenuous workout in the gym, a hot bath might be the ideal replacement for a massage because it causes a reduction in muscle tension making you feel more relaxed.
Whether you are an explorer in the farthest reaches of north of our planet or in a mother of a new born baby in the equatorial regions, you will find that hot water, in one way or another brings comfort and health benefits to you and your entire team or family. So when next you relax in a hot shower or your baby laughs during a warm bath, save a moment to think about the miracle of how increasing the temperature of water by a few degrees can make all the difference in the world.
· Dr Renner is a consultant paediatrician at Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), Idi-Araba.