Throughout Italy, boys pull down their baseball caps, women flap open dainty fans and men whip out their handkerchiefs and mop their glowing faces.

The summer heat beats down mercilessly on Italy, particularly in the larger cities such Genoa, Milan, Bari, Bologna and Rome, with temperatures skirting around the dreaded 40 degree mark.

In the eternal city, water bottles are being handed out as a preventative emergency measure to the millions of tourists, eternally queuing outside the Vatican and other visitor hot spots.

Part of the problem is the high levels of humidity present. In fact, temperatures ranging from 30-35 degrees with a humidity level between 60-70 per cent is sufficient to cause heat collapse and other serious health risks.

Summer 2006 is reminiscent of 2003 which was the hottest summer of the century in Europe with temperatures varying between 38-40 degrees in Italian cities for weeks on end. During this infamous summer, the Italian national institute of statistics reported around 20,000 extra deaths compared to the mortalities for the same period in 2002.

The elderly are the ones most at risk in this aria africana, especially in this period which meteorologists predict will be among the worst of the summer, with no Atlantic currents in sight to provide relief.

Even the Mediterranean waters have reached a temperature of 29 degrees while farmers are concerned for their crops. The lack of rain has already caused serious problems especially in the North-West of the country and in Friuli Venezia Giulia, where the damages done to wheat, corn and barley crops have already caused millions of euros worth of damages.

Alarm bells are also ringing for the river Po, where water levels are dropping by 10 centimetres a day, which translates to a drop of 4 metres in the last month only, This has resulted in a navigation ban and the closing of the Torre dOglio bridge. The sea water in the river is fast replacing the fresh water, which will have a dramatic impact on the coastal region.

Forest fires are also reason for concern. Last year saw some 8 000 fires across the country with some 47 000 hectares burnt to the ground.

Food and Drink Advice to beat the heat:

1. Avoid physical activity during the hottest times of the day, especially after meals.

Drink water frequently, even if you dont really feel like it, at least 10 glasses a day.

2. The elderly often do not realize they are thirsty (owing decreased hormone activity) but can become dehydrated very quickly.

3. Avoid fizzy drinks and coffee, which are diuretic and thus cause your body to lose liquids. Alcohol increases cardiovascular activity and associated risks so it is best to not consume hard spirits rather have a glass of wine or beer, but women should not exceed 2 glasses per day, while men shouldnt drink more than 3, preferably with your meal. Dont drink excessively cold drinks.

4. Eat lightly and frequently. It is important to eat plenty of fruit and vegetables to replenish the system (at least 3 portions a day). Cold minestrone is a tasty option to pasta, which should ideally only be eaten once a week. Eat fish rather than meat. Sorbets and fruit-based ice creams are a better option than cream-based gelati, which increase the feelings of thirst.

General Advice

Try not to go outdoors during the hottest hours of the day (12.00-18.00).

If you have air-conditioning, avoid creating swings in temperature of more than 5 or 6 degrees as this could shock the system.

Keep your head covered, protect your skin with sunscreen and your eyes with sunglasses (opt for glasses with UV 400, which will filter out 90 per cent of the suns damaging UVA and UVB rays).

Wearing appropriate clothing can also help combat sweltering temperatures. Wear light-coloured, loose-fitting clothing made of cotton or linen.

If all else fails, place your wrists under cool running water or put something cool on them. The blood vessels of this area are closer to the surface, so you will be instantly refreshed.

Useful Contact Details

Senior citizens helpline tel. 80044002 (open 24 hours)

National heat emergency helpline tel. 800995988 (open 8.00-20.00)

Ambulance emergency number tel. 118

The Protezione Civile has set up the sistema nazionale di sorvegliana (weather watchdog) which will be effective until September, continually monitoring temperatures and pre-warning of associated health risks up to 72 hours beforehand. You can check daily updates on the Protezione civile site at www.protezionecivile.com

If you see a fire, please alert the protezione civile national hotline tel. 115 or 1515