Signs of heatstroke: symptoms, treatment and how to prevent it

Heatstroke symptoms, treatments and how to prevent it
Heatstroke symptoms, treatments and how to prevent it

Occasionally, Britain is treated to prolonged hot temperatures or heatwaves, with many of us making an immediate beeline for the nearest sun-soaked beach or park. But high temperatures aren’t always rosy - they could bring a real danger of heatstroke.

Heatstroke (also referred to as sunstroke) is a serious condition that is commonly caused by hot weather or exercise. In this state, the body is no longer able to cool itself down and the temperature reaches dangerously high levels.

The condition can affect anyone, but babies, young children, people over the age of 75 and those with underlying health conditions could be at greater risk, according to Public Health England.

But fear not. We have investigated the heatstroke symptoms and treatments, as well as how long the condition lasts, so you can feel prepared should a heatwave strike.

What are heatstroke symptoms?

If you sit out in the sunshine for too long, you might experience “heat exhaustion”. This is where you may start excessively sweating, feel dizzy or nauseous, lose your appetite, experience cramps in your legs, arms or stomach and feel extremely thirsty.

For heat exhaustion, the NHS says your symptoms should clear within 30 minutes of cooling down. Heatstroke, on the other hand, is more dangerous (but, thankfully, less common).

There is cause for concern when you start to exhibit these more extreme symptoms, as they may be signs of heatstroke:

  • Feeling confused

  • Becoming unresponsive or losing consciousness

  • Having a fit or seizure

  • Feeling hot but not sweating

  • Having a temperature above 40C

  • Having rapid or irregular breathing

If you are not feeling better within 30 minutes, this may also be a sign of heatstroke and you will need to seek emergency medical attention. The NHS recommends that you call 999 if you exhibit these symptoms.

If you fear your friend is suffering from heatstroke, give them first aid and put them in the recovery position.

How to treat heatstroke and keep cool

If you think someone you know may be suffering from heatstroke, you can first try to cool them down. Move them to a cool place, raise their feet slightly, and get them to drink plenty of water (sports drinks should also work).

It may also be worth cooling their skin down by dabbing them with a sponge or spraying them with cold water. It’s particularly useful to put such cold patches on the armpits and neck and then fan the moist areas.

It is important not to give them paracetamol or aspirin, as this can put the body under more strain, according to Public Health England.

If the symptoms persist within 30 minutes, you need to seek urgent medical help.

How to prevent heatstroke in extreme summer weather

While it is tempting to drink a few “tinnies” in the sunshine, it’s important to avoid drinking too much alcohol. Instead, you should drink water to stay hydrated. Fruit juices often have a high sugar content, so the NHS recommends limiting your intake to 150ml.

You can stay cool at home during the heatwave by closing your curtains and windows if it’s hotter outside your home than within. Light-coloured curtains are particularly effective at reflecting the sun’s light, whereas dark curtains and metallic blinds absorb the heat and can make the room warmer. (It’s also worth reading our guide to the best portable air conditioners for your home.)

When you are out and about, you should wear loose, light-coloured clothing (as well as the obligatory hat and sunnies) to minimise heat retention. It’s also important to minimise strenuous activity or, if you really must go on a jog, at least restrict it to the cooler part of the day.

Avoiding the heat altogether is the best way to avoid heatstroke, however, and the NHS recommends staying out of the sun between 11am and 3pm.

As well as looking after yourself, it is important to look out for more vulnerable people who are at a higher risk of heatstroke. “The extreme heat means that our bodies, especially our hearts and lungs, have to work harder to maintain a normal temperature,” explains Owen Landeg, Principal Environmental Public Health Scientist at Public Health England.

“This is why our advice focuses on reminding people to keep an eye on those who are most at risk, older people, those with underlying health conditions and very young children. The most important advice is to ensure they stay hydrated, keep cool and keep their homes cool.”

Risk factors and vulnerable groups

Vulnerable groups include:

  • Babies and children under the age of five

  • Adults over 65

  • People with underlying health conditions, such as heart problems, obesity, breathing problems, dementia, diabetes, kidney disease or Parkinson’s disease.

  • Pregnant women

  • People taking certain medications

Heatstroke can hit anyone, at any time of life, but the following factors may increase your risk:

Age

Infants and the elderly are particularly susceptible to heatstroke. The way the body reacts to extreme heat is down to the strength of the central nervous system and how it responds to change. In the very young, the central nervous system is not yet fully formed, whereas in the elderly it has begun to deteriorate. This makes the body less able to cope with extreme temperature change and also less able to keep well-hydrated.

Medications

The following medications can affect the body’s ability to cope with extreme heat and remain hydrated:

  • Antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamines and beta blockers which can affect your body’s ability to sweat or circulate blood properly, all of which makes it harder to cool down.

  • Diuretics that rid the body of sodium and fluids in the body which makes you more dehydrated.

  • Stimulants, such as those prescribed to treat ADHD, or illegal substances such as amphetamines make you more vulnerable to heat stroke.

Health conditions

Chronic health conditions, especially heart or lung disease, being obese or having a previous history of heatstroke makes it much more likely you will suffer from heat stroke.

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