The hidden dangers of summer days: sunburn vs. heatstroke


13. 08. 2020

With the increased promise of exciting adventures comes the risk of many unwelcome complications which could put a sudden end to your idyllic holiday plans. Relaxing on a sun lounger does not always have a happy ending, but can end in a sun burn, nausea and will very likely cause you to make a dash for anywhere cool. What causes heatstroke and how to prevent it?

Sun exposure, tropical heat, high humidity and lack of hydration are key contributors to the development of sunstroke and heatstroke and it’s not uncommon for both of these to occur at the same time.  

Warm temperatures are the main culprit in heatstroke

Heatstroke refers to a state where your body is overheated, which occurs when you stay in an environment with a very high temperature for too long. This can be anywhere from a car to a small confined space. So, contrary to popular belief, it’s not actually direct sunlight that’s to blame, but rather persistent heat. „At risk individuals include children, elderly, the overweight or obese, and patients with cardiovascular issues. Not getting enough hydration impedes your body’s natural thermoregulation: the production of sweat, through which the body can cool down and lower the body temperature is limited,” explains Dr. Barbara Taušová, general practitioner for children and adolescents at Canadian Medical. Sunstroke presents with nausea, vomiting, fever, tachycardia. In more severe cases, a high fever, chills and confusion. Extreme cases can lead to a coma. The patient often complains of a persistent headache, malaise and feeling faint.

Sunshine increases the risk of sunstroke

Heading to the sea or lake without a proper head covering increases the risk of sunstroke. Get yourself a straw hat or lay in shade. Beach tents are a growing trend and they are becoming increasingly popular especially among families with small kids. The direct exposure of sun rays on the top of the head can cause nausea, headache, convulsions or even vomiting. Direct sun exposure can lead to brain damage. However, it is usually not accompanied by a fever.

Regular and thorough sunscreen application is the best way to prevent a painful sunburn, which is the leading cause of premature skin ageing, pigment spots and skin cancer. People with light skin (and therefore very low skin pigment) are at especially high risk of developing sunburn. The symptoms of sunstroke are very similar to that of heatstroke, the only difference being the impact of the harsh sun intensity can cause skin irritation in the form of sun erythema, or in worse cases sun burn. The skin is sensitive, swollen, hot to touch or itchy. Stiffening of the neck area can also occur. It’s important to remember that the symptoms can strike even a couple of hours after sun exposure, often in the evening.

What will help?

Mild cases can be managed at home, but in more serious cases you should seek medical attention immediately and monitor vital functions until assistance arrives. The basic principle for first aid in heat or sunstroke is to reduce the overall body temperature.

Remove the patient from the warm environment to a cool and well-ventilated area. Careful, however, about drafts and air conditioning- an extreme change in temperatures can result in an unwelcome shock. Cold compresses will bring some relief, and slowly administering fluids (preferably spoon by spoon) will benefit the confused digestive system. Experts recommend mineral waters, salted water, tea and isotonic drinks. Rehydration drinks (commonly available at the pharmacy) replenishes your energy stores and minerals, while also providing hydration. Any affected areas on the skin can be calmed using thermal waters and coolants containing panthenol or vitamin E. If blisters develop, do not pierce them- the fluid that’s contained within accelerates healing and at the same time provides antiseptic properties. Aloe vera, sorrel leaves, black tea compresses or white yoghurt rich in probiotics are often used to soothe the areas. Moisturise the irritated skin abundantly after sunbathing and avoid aggressive chlorine, sea salt and sand which could all unnecessarily prolong the skin’s regeneration.

Dr. Barbara Taušová adds: “It is obviously important to protect yourself from excessive heat and the harsh sun. However, we must not forget that being outdoors and in the sun is also important for our health. Sometimes people also need to be reminded of this, especially during a time when we are all (including our children) so used to spending time indoors and only going out for limited periods of time. I always emphasise to the parents that come to my doctor’s office the importance of their children going out every day- into nature or at least to a park. Physical activity, fresh air and mild sunshine has great benefits on our health.”

Preventive advice for the summer season

  • Chose breathable clothing with a high proportion of cotton. Dark colours attract sunlight so opt for lighter shades
  • It is best to apply sunscreen before going into direct sunlight, wear some head protection and sunglasses.
  • Pay attention to your fluid intake. Requirement depends on age, weight, physical performance and diet. The sensation of thirst decreases with age.
  • If you observe changes in your moles or birthmarks, make sure to schedule a visit to your dermatologist promptly.

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