After a long winter of bundling up and staying indoors, warmer weather can feel like a blessing. Putting on a swimsuit and flip flops is a welcome change from the cold months and wearing multiple layers.
For many, summer is a time of relaxation. But while we often associate the sun with light, warmth, and even happiness, its harmful effects are often unknown or underestimated.
Many people know how to protect themselves from sunburn and skin cancer but don’t take the same precautions for other sun-related illnesses. Awareness of common sun dangers can mean the difference between a fun afternoon and a visit to the emergency room.
Whether you’re firing up the grill or packing a bag for the beach, knowing the signs and symptoms of heat stroke can help ensure summer activities are safe for the whole family.
What Is Heat Stroke?
Heat stroke occurs when your body temperature rises quickly, leaving it unable to regulate and control its temperature through normal reactions, like sweating.
Also referred to as sunstroke, heat stroke is the most serious of heat-related illnesses. Heat strokes happen most often when you are exposed to the sun for extended periods of time or when exerting energy in warmer temperatures (like running outdoors on a hot day).
If heat stroke isn’t recognized and treated, it can result in complications like seizures, coma, permanent disabilities, and, in extreme cases, death.
Common symptoms of heat stroke include:
- High body temperature (above 103°F)
- Nausea, dizziness, fainting
- Hot, dry, or red skin (but no sweating)
- Fast heart rate
Learn more about heat-related illnesses and how to prevent them.
Who Is Most At Risk of Experiencing Heat Stroke?
Anyone can be at risk of a heat stroke, but certain individual or environmental factors can increase your risk.
Heat stroke risk increases for:
- Adults age 65 or older
- Infants and children under the age of 5
- People who are ill
- People who are overweight
- Individuals using medications that increase sun sensitivity, such as some antibiotics, antihistamines, or medications used to treat Parkinson’s disease
Heat stroke risk also increases as a result of environmental factors or activities, such as:
- Exercising or working in the sun
- Hot living quarters or lack of air conditioning
- Dehydration or alcohol use
- Traveling to locations with higher temperatures than you are used to
How Can I Prevent Heat Stroke?
There are many precautions that you can take to prevent heat stroke and other heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion and heat cramps. Whether you go out for a solo jog or bring the family to the zoo, taking measures to prevent heat stroke is key.
It is well-known that sunscreen can protect you from a wide range of sun-related illnesses and skin conditions, but did you know that wearing sunscreen can also prevent your chances of getting heat stroke?
Not applying — and not reapplying — sunscreen increases your likelihood of getting a sunburn. Because sunburns decrease your body’s ability to regulate and cool down your body temperature, they can lead to dehydration. Both of these factors can contribute to an increased chance of heat stroke.
For the best sun protection:
- Wear sunscreen that is SPF 15 or higher
- Apply sunscreen 30 minutes prior to going out in the sun
- Reapply sunscreen as directed
At CCH, we recommend staying hydrated as one way to protect yourself from heat stroke.
When in the hotter temperatures, aim to drink one cup of water (8 ounces) every 15 to 20 minutes. It's better to drink smaller amounts of water at shorter intervals than to drink a lot of water all at once.
This can especially be true if there are alcoholic beverages being served. When drinking alcohol on a summer day, it can feel like you are consuming an appropriate amount of fluids. In reality, those same drinks are dehydrating your body. Being dehydrated can increase your risk of heat stroke, but drinking water is a simple line of defense.
Try to match each standard alcoholic drink with one glass of water. Or, if you’re going to the beach or park where ordering a glass of water isn’t possible, be sure to pack a water bottle.
Never Leave a Child — or Pet — In a Parked Car
The temperature inside of a parked car can reach over 115°F when parked in the sun, even when the outside temperature is only 70°F. If a child — or pet — is inside the car, they can become exposed to extreme temperatures and be at risk for vehicular heat stroke.
Unfortunately, dozens of children lose their lives to this type of heat stroke every year. In 2018 and 2019, 53 children died each year due to vehicular heat stroke. This includes children who were left in cars intentionally, children who were forgotten in cars, and children who got into an unattended and unlocked car while playing.
Regardless of circumstances, children should never be left alone in a car. Even a short errand to the store can prove dangerous — the temperature inside a car can increase about 19 degrees in just 10 minutes.
If you see a child left alone in a car and they seem responsive, attempt to locate the parents. If a child is unresponsive, call 911 immediately.
Protect Each Other: Watch Out for Those at the Highest Risk
Knowing who is at the highest risk for heat stroke can help you monitor and protect the most vulnerable.
Remember the signs to look for, and frequently check up on those who have the highest risk, like children or older adults. For instance, if you bring your children or grandparents to the park, make sure they wear sunscreen, stay hydrated, and spend some time in the shade.
Read more about how to keep yourself and your family safe this summer
How to Respond to Heat Stroke
If someone is experiencing symptoms of heat stroke:
- Call 911 right away.
- Move them from the sun and heat to an area that is shady, out of the sun, or air conditioned.
- Remove any unnecessary layers of clothing.
- Try to lower their body temperature with a cool sponge or cloth. Applying the cloth to the neck, wrist, or armpits is ideal.
- Help them drink water if they are able to swallow. Avoid drinks that are caffeinated, sugary, or alcoholic.
Enjoy Your Summer Safely
No matter what you are looking forward to this summer, warmer weather opens the door for opportunities to connect with family, friends, and nature.
Practicing smart sun safety and being aware of the symptoms — and severity — of heat stroke will allow you and your loved ones to make the most of what summer has to offer.
Looking for more information about sun safety or dermatologists on the medical staff at Chester County Hospital? Call 610-738-2800 to make an appointment with a healthcare provider or Visit Our Physician Directory.