On the first hot days of summer, the sun’s intensity is often underestimated – there is a risk of sunstroke. Find out here how to recognise, treat and, above all, prevent sunstroke.
After a summer’s day at the lake, you come home sun-kissed and happy. Suddenly, your head hurts, your neck is stiff and you suffer from nausea. That’s the insidious thing about sunstroke: the symptoms usually appear long after you have been in the sun.
When the head, neck and throat are exposed to excessive and direct sunlight, heat builds up in the head. As a result, the brain swells and the meninges, which are located directly under the skull, become irritated.
In medical terminology, sunstroke is called insolation and is classified as heat exhaustion in emergency medicine.
Sunstroke has similar symptoms to bacterial or viral meningitis. In both cases, the meninges become inflamed. Bacterial meningitis, in particular, is a dangerous disease that can become life-threatening within a few hours. Unlike sunstroke, it is associated with high fever.
The risk of sunstroke is particularly high in infants and toddlers, because they have sparse hair, their skull bones are thin and they have a gap in their skulls (fontanelles). In addition, infants and toddlers sweat less and can’t adjust to temperature changes like adults can. Toddlers with sunstroke often refuse food or vomit it up. Frequently, they are pale, restless and whiny. In addition to the usual symptoms, children may also have a fever. Never leave children who have suffered sunstroke unattended and contact a doctor immediately.
Usually, the symptoms subside within hours to a maximum of two days. Adults often recover more quickly than children. If sunstroke is recognised in time and the correct measures are taken early, there is no lasting damage.
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If a person’s condition suddenly worsens, there may be a number of reasons:
When fluid enters brain cells, the brain swells. However, it cannot expand in the bony skull. Parts of the brain can be bruised and damaged. Symptoms often include impaired consciousness and bodily functions such as drowsiness, apathy, hallucinations, coma, seizures, speech problems, breathing problems and paralysis of the eye muscles. The course can be fatal. Call an ambulance or go to A&E immediately.
Affected persons may appear restless and agitated, but also apathetic and confused. Severe drowsiness, listlessness, sleepiness, confusion, hallucinations and fainting may be signs that the brain is no longer receiving sufficient blood supply. This may result in permanent damage. Make sure that the affected person lies with their legs elevated so that the blood can flow more easily to the brain. In case of unconsciousness, experts advise putting the person in the recovery position. If the situation does not return to normal, call the emergency services immediately.
Typical signs of shock are rapid heartbeat, very low blood pressure, pale skin, cool skin and cold sweat. Here, too, the blood supply to the brain is impaired and the circulatory system may collapse completely. Lay responsive persons flat and put their legs up. If unconscious, the recovery position is helpful. Do not leave the affected person alone and keep them awake. Check their pulse and breathing regularly. Call emergency services immediately.
The name says it all: sunstroke is caused by sun exposure, heatstroke by heat – usually in combination with a lack of fluids. While sunstroke is limited to the head, heatstroke causes heat to build up throughout the body. The body overheats, temperature regulation fails and the affected person can no longer sweat. Signs of heatstroke are often cramps, hallucinations and disorientation. The pulse rate is high, blood pressure is low, the skin hot and dry. This condition is often mistaken for exhaustion or fatigue and heatstroke is therefore treated too late.
Move the affected person out of the heat immediately and call emergency services. The first aid measures are the same as for sunstroke.
Julia Pieh (doctorate in pharmacy and toxicology, pharmacist, naturopath) works as a health consultation advisor and quality coach at Helsana. She is committed to providing health advice to our clients. Ms Pieh provided the editorial team with advice and input for this article.