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Researchers at the University of California, San Diego, tracked preterm birth rates and exposure to summer heat waves among almost 2 million pregnant women in California between 2005 and 2013. Using public birth data and temperature records, they pinpointed heat waves and their duration by zip code, and correlated that with changes in the number of preterm births.
Overall, about 1 in 15 births were preterm, the researchers found. But when broken down by heat exposure, women who lived in areas that experienced unusually hot temperatures toward the end of their pregnancies were 13 percent more likely to suffer preterm birth than pregnant women who did not live through extreme heat, according to the findings published in Environment International.
What's more, the higher the temperature and the longer the duration of the heat wave, the higher the risk of preterm birth, researchers found.
"It was surprising how strong the trend was," said lead author Sindana Ilango. "It was so clear that as temperature and duration of a heat wave went up, so did the risk of preterm birth."
A birth is considered preterm when a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy (compared to full-term, which is defined as 40 weeks of pregnancy). Preterm birth is risky because it increases babies' chances of suffering health issues and disabilities such as breathing and heart conditions, brain hemorrhage, cerebral palsy, learning difficulties, and vision and hearing problems.
Extreme heat is just one of many factors tied to preterm births. There are numerous other possible reasons that can contribute, including infection, a problem with the placenta, or an excessively large uterus.
However, climate change is increasing the duration and frequency of heat waves, and researchers agree that government officials need to consider how this impacts people's health and plan accordingly.
So, how does heat affect a pregnant woman's body?
It's not clear why heat waves may increase preterm birth risk. The researchers pointed to previous studies suggesting that extreme heat affects hormone regulation and chances of dehydration, which in turn could trigger contractions and early labor.
What can pregnant women do to increase their safety in hot weather?
With summer around the corner, the chances of experiencing a heat wave are high, especially if you live in warmer regions of the United States. Here are some tips from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the CDC for avoiding overheating when you're pregnant:
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Wear loose-fitting clothing.
- Don't exercise outside when it's very hot or humid; exercise in a temperature-controlled room instead.
- Take breaks in the shade or in an air-conditioned area if you work in a hot environment.
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