You'd be forgiven for thinking that we should know better. After all, we’re told so many times these days to be aware of the sun, to douse our bodies in plenty of sun cream and sun blocker, and basically to stay out of the sun. However, when it comes down to it, most of us are still sun worshippers, especially those of us who have taken the bull by the horns and relocated to sunnier climes, such as Spain.
Getting sunburnt, especially in this day and age with all the knowledge of the damage that overexposure to the sun can bring, is a pretty silly thing to do; however, it is quite easily treatable and no more than a mild discomfort for a day or two. But getting sunstroke (sometimes called heatstroke or heat exhaustion) is quite a different kettle of fish, and can leave you feeling very ill - in some cases it can even be fatal. So the purpose of this article is to help you to correctly diagnose sunstroke, and to advise you of the best treatment to deal with it.
The correct medical term for sunstroke is hyperthermia, not to be confused with hypothermia which is exactly the opposite. Whereas hypothermia is a condition whereby your body temperature drops below a certain level, (namely 35° C to be precise), hyperthermia is a condition whereby your body acquires too high a temperature, and is unable to deal with it.
Hyperthermia is usually the result of overexposure to the sun, hence its name – sunstroke. The body has certain natural mechanisms for dealing with overheating, one of which for example is perspiring. However with sunstroke, what happens is that your body temperature bypasses the level at which your normal bodily functions are able to cope, and when this happens, it becomes a potential medical emergency that needs to be recognised and treated as soon as possible.
Symptoms of Sunstroke
One of the first symptoms to recognise in someone with sunstroke, is a high temperature, usually above 38c. What happens is that in order to cope with the extremely high temperature the body is experiencing, the perspiration mechanism goes into overdrive. But this alone is not able to cope with the problem, and once the body’s perspiration mechanism fails to lower the temperature sufficiently, the body temperature begins to rise.
As the patient's body temperature gets higher, the result is a decrease in blood pressure and this can cause the patient to feel somewhat dizzy, and in the worst case scenario, to faint or even pass out. This decrease in blood pressure then causes the heart to accelerate as it tries to compensate for the lack of oxygen in the blood. As the blood vessels begin to expand and dilate in order to try and reduce the body temperature, this results in the skin becoming more red in its outward appearance.
Other symptoms of sunstroke may include mental confusion, hyperventilation, nausea/sickness, headache and hot dry skin.
Treatment of Sunstroke
The recommended treatment for anyone suffering from sunstroke is quite simple and straightforward.
Firstly the victim must be removed to a cool, shady area out of the sunshine. Their clothing should be loosened and/or removed to allow the perspiration mechanism to function to its fullest extent.
Whilst a cool bath is to be recommended, you should avoid applying cold cloths or towels. The reason for this is that water is a much better conductor of heat and is much more effective at drawing the heat out of body, whereas cold cloth or towels are very quickly warmed and become ineffective, but if applied too often, the difference between rapid changes from hot to cold can be unhelpful. Cloths and towels also have the effect of trapping the body heat inside the body rather than allowing it to dissipate more naturally. Drinking cool water and fluids can also help to reduce temperature.
Sunstroke not only results in the loss of water from the body, but also the loss of salt. If possible, give the patient something slightly salty to eat which will help to retain water in the body.
As it is so important, it is worth repeating - Please be warned. Sunstroke can actually be fatal, so it is critical to recognise it in its early stages. Once the diagnosis has been made, hopefully by those around at the time, a doctor should be notified immediately. In the meantime by moving the victim out of the sun, and helping to reduce their temperature as described above, you will be helping to prepare the way for proper medical treatment, and will also be helping to shorten the victim’s recovery time too.
When to call for medical attention
As a rule, the patients temperature should come down below 38c within around 30 minutes or so once out of the sun and receiving treatment. If after 30 minutes the patient still has the following symptoms, please call for medical attention.
Image courtesy of arichards63 on Flickr.
Updated: July 02, 2019 CET
Updated: February 22, 2021 CET