Sunstroke or Heatstroke – What you need to know

Copyright 2006 Anne Wolski

Sunstroke is a very dangerous condition which can be fatal or, at best, can cause permanent damage. This happens when the body’s thermostat fails to work because of overheating. This condition is not just one that occurs from exposure to too much sun but can be caused by extreme heat in any environment, including workplace environments such as steelworks. Although this condition is called sunstroke, it is more apt to call it heatstroke as the real cause is not the sun’s rays but the intense heat produced by the sun.

The body loses heat in two ways. Firstly, the body loses heat through the skin when the blood vessels become dilated, allowing more blood to flow to the surface. Secondly, evaporation occurs when the sweat glands produce fluid onto the skin, allowing the heat to escape through vaporization.

Humidity also plays a part in increasing the body temperature as the sweat fails to evaporate efficiently through the natural process of vaporization. Also, if the air is still, the body does not lose heat by convection.

Heat exhaustion may occur when people perform hard physical labour in a hot environment. This happens because the person loses too much salt and water from their body through excess sweating. Eventually, if the person continues to work in this type of environment, the body will adapt to the conditions and heat disorders become less likely.

The most vulnerable to heat disorders, in particular to heatstroke or sunstroke, are young babies and children and the very old. In these cases, the heat regulating mechanisms of their bodies lack efficiency. Because of this, older people often feel cold and consequently wear warm clothes even on a hot day, thus further increasing their vulnerability to heat disorders.

Other influential factors include the obesity, heavy alcohol consumption; people who are feverish, or those who are simply not used to intense heat.

Symptoms of heatstroke are;

1. A high temperature of more than 41C or 106F
2. A noticeable absence of perspiration
3. Problems with the nervous system

The problems with the nervous system is the most serious sign and can include mood disturbances, headaches, dizziness, loss of balance and coordination, and disorientation. Eventually the person may lose consciousness and lapse into a coma.

If heatstroke is not treated before it becomes fully developed, it is extremely dangerous and, in around twenty percent of cases, it is fatal. Even those who make a full recovery may have continual problems with balance and coordination for many months afterwards. However, if prompt treatment is administered, the outlook is good and a speedy recovery is likely.

It is essential to seek medical treatment as swiftly as possible following the onset of any of the symptoms of heatstroke. In the meantime, cool the person down by removing their clothing and covering them with a thin sheet which needs to be continuously doused in cold water. Be careful not to reduce the temperature below 39C or 102F as he or she may go into shock. If possible, get the person into a tub of cold water.

Obviously, prevention is the best way to fight sunstroke. Wear cool clothing and a hat, drink plenty of fluids and don’t stay out too long in the sun is the sensible option. To avoid heatstroke in the workplace, it is essential to wear cool clothing, drink adequate fluids, and also take salt tablets if necessary.

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