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Watch out for sunstroke!

Everything about the symptoms of sunstroke and how to protect yourself

As beautiful as the summer is, too much sunshine can lead to sunstroke. Below you can find out how to prevent this and which symptoms you should look out for.

Summer, sunshine, sunstroke

Picture this: you’re spending a wonderful summer’s day on the beach with your friends. You’re enjoying every second, not realising how much the sun is burning your head and neck. As the time goes on, you start to get a headache and feel a little unwell. The headache becomes more intense; your head is red and feels very hot. What’s going on?

These are most likely the first signs of sunstroke. Now it’s time to react in the right way.
What causes sunstroke?

Excessive exposure of the head and neck to the sun can lead to overheating. This heat build-up triggers a series of reactions, leading to irritation of the meninges and brain tissue. If the head is exposed to the sun for an extended period without adequate protection, in intense sunlight and in hot weather, there is an increased risk of sunstroke.

  • Headache and/or neck pain 
  • Red, hot head   
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Nausea and vomiting  
  • Possibly a high temperature or fever
  • Weakness
  • In severe cases of sunstroke – if the meninges are severely irritated – a stiff neck, an increased heart rate and impaired consciousness may occur. Loss of consciousness and a state of shock can also develop (see question “What are the possible complications of sunstroke?”).

Sunstroke mainly affects the head and scalp, while heatstroke affects the entire body, causing it to lose the ability to regulate temperature. In the case of sunstroke, treatment usually focuses on resting, cooling and hydration. Heatstroke, on the other hand, is an emergency and requires immediate medical attention to reduce body temperature and prevent potentially life-threatening consequences. Avoid excessive sun and heat to protect yourself from heatstroke or sunstroke (more information: “How can sunstroke be prevented?”).

Heat exhaustion causes a lack of fluids and electrolytes (salts) in the body. The main cause is excessive heat, usually associated with physical exertion. Untreated heat exhaustion may develop into sunstroke or heatstroke.

Typically, the symptoms of sunstroke develop gradually as the sun exposure continues. The first signs of sunstroke may be a feeling of heat on the scalp accompanied by a slight discomfort. The symptoms may then progress and become more intense.

If a person shows signs of sunstroke, you should immediately take them to a cool, shady place and make sure they drink plenty of fluids. The head should be elevated and cooled with wet cloths. In the event of severe symptoms, call the emergency services. To prevent further complications, sunstroke must be treated properly.

Home remedies can provide temporary relief and relieve symptoms. If you have severe symptoms or if your condition does not improve, it is essential that you see a doctor. The following home remedies are worth trying:

  • Cooling: one of the most important measures is to cool the body down. Cold compresses or damp cloths can be applied to the forehead and neck to reduce heat. A cold shower or bath can also help. However, avoid using water that is too cold so as not to put additional strain on the body through an extreme temperature difference.
  • Hydration: it is important to drink plenty of fluids when experiencing sunstroke. Water or isotonic drinks restore your electrolyte balance (i.e. the balance of special minerals such as sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium). 
  • Rest and shade: protect your body from further sunlight. Find a shady place or an enclosed space to cool your head and body.
  • Aloe vera: aloe vera gel can help to relieve skin irritation and redness thanks to its cooling and soothing effect.
  • Additional natural cooling: some foods – such as cucumber, watermelon, mint and coconut water – have a natural cooling effect.

How long sunstroke lasts varies from person to person and depends on a number of factors, such as the severity of the sunstroke and the right treatment. If the head and body are immediately cooled and hydrated, symptoms usually subside within 24 to 48 hours. In more severe cases, recovery may take longer. In such cases, you should seek medical help to alleviate the symptoms and prevent possible complications.

  • In the worst case, sunstroke can lead to cerebral oedema (accumulation of fluid in the brain, increased pressure in the brain) or meningitis.
  • If the brain is not supplied with enough blood, the sunstroke can trigger impaired consciousness, loss of consciousness or shock.  
  • Excessive exposure to heat can cause heavy sweating and loss of fluid in the body. In these cases, it is important to drink plenty to prevent the body from dehydrating.
  • In some people, headaches, dizziness, concentration problems, memory impairment and other neurological symptoms may recur after a sunstroke.
  • When sunstroke occurs, the scalp often becomes red and sensitive. There is a risk of severe sunburn, blisters and skin damage.
  • If heatstroke occurs, the body loses its ability to cool down. Heatstroke can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

These measures help to reduce the risk of sunstroke:

  • Spend the hottest hours of the day in the shade and avoid direct sunlight on the head and scalp. 
  • If you are outdoors, cover your head with a sun hat and your neck with suitable clothing. 
  • Apply a generous amount of sunscreen with a high sun protection factor to exposed areas of skin. 
  • Drink plenty of water on hot days. The recommended intake is two to three litres per day.
  • Adapt your behaviour to the heat and avoid intensive physical activity in the sun.

Children have more sensitive skin and are not yet able to regulate their body temperature as well as adults. In order to prevent dangerous consequences such as sunstroke and heatstroke, they must be particularly well protected from the sun and heat. Young children are also at increased risk of sunstroke because their hair is not as thick and their head and neck are more exposed to the sun. As young children are not yet able to speak, the symptoms are more difficult to recognise. Parents must therefore be particularly attentive.

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