Sunstroke Prevention and Treatment

Written By: Joseph Cescon and Monica Khosravi, Summer Student

Blog 42 - sky-sunny-clouds-cloudy

You’re soaking up the sun and playing your favourite outdoor sport on a hot afternoon in July. You start to get a bit of headache, but you brush it off and continue playing. As you run across the field, you realize that your headache has turned into dizziness, and your muscles start to cramp. You stop playing, but continue to feel nauseated and even start vomiting. You can feel your skin radiating heat as you try to catch your breath.

If you have ever experienced this type of episode, you have likely suffered from a form of heat or sunstroke. Heatstroke occurs when the body has been exposed to hot temperatures for long periods of time. Sunstroke is a form of heatstroke, and is the result of extensive exposure to direct sunlight. Both are dangerous, and on a hot summer day, both can strike a person simultaneously.

Heatstroke occurs when the core body temperature rises to greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius. Although it can range in severity, at its most extreme, heatstroke can kill or cause damage to the brain and other internal organs. Because milder forms of heatstroke can be treated relatively easily, it is important to recognize the onset signs and symptoms of heat stroke before it progresses to such a severe stage.

Symptoms of heat stroke may include:

  • Pounding headache
  • Dizziness or light headedness
  • Fainting
  • Lack of sweating despite the heat
  • Red, hot, dry skin
  • Muscle weakness or cramping
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Confusion, agitation, or disorientation
  • Seizures

If a person experiences any one of these symptoms, they should treat themselves for heatstroke immediately. The first step is to reduce the body temperature. This can be done by finding a cool spot to lay down in the shade, removing any extra clothing, and placing a wet cloth or ice against the skin. If the person is near a cottage or their home, they should try taking a cold shower or bath. The second step is to rehydrate. Heat stroke often occurs not only from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, but from a combination of high temperatures and dehydration. Slowly rehydrating with an energy drink is ideal because it not only replenishes depleted liquids within the body, but also counteracts the loss of salt.

If a person’s symptoms get progressively worse even after following these two steps, it is time to call 911. Any delay in seeking medical help can be potentially fatal, particularly for people within the most vulnerable age categories of 50 years or older, or children.

Heatstroke is an underestimated condition but is completely avoidable if simple precautions are taken. These precautions include:

  • Avoid going outside an air conditioned environment when the heat index is high
  • Wearing lightweight, light-coloured, loose-fitting clothing and hat
  • Using sunscreen with at least SPF 30 protection
  • Drinking extra liquids, particularly sports drinks that contain electrolytes
  • Taking breaks in the shade
  • Try to schedule outdoor activities when the sun is less strong- before 11am and after 3pm
  • Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol since both accelerate dehydration

By following these steps, a person can enjoy a hot summer day to the fullest while staying safe and healthy.

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