Understanding Sun Poisoning and Other Heat-Related Illnesses
As summer arrives, our minds are often on the endless activities we can enjoy during the season-not the heat and its associated dangers. Whether you're thinking about taking a trip to the beach, having a picnic in the park, or going on a long hike or bike ride, it's important to think about how you'll protect yourself when out in the sun. Of course, many of us know to carry a good sunscreen, water and mosquito repellent, but we may not always be so conscious about avoiding heat-related illnesses. Ashley Wentworth, M.D., a dermatologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, provides us with an explanation of the various heat-related illness and the symptoms you should be looking for in order to stay safe. "Such illnesses develop when there is prolonged exposure to sun and heat, resulting in fluid loss without replacement," Wentworth says.
With the hottest part of the day ranging between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., it's important to take precautions when heading outside, even it's just for a brief period of time. According to the National Safety Council, June and July present the highest chance of heat-related deaths. "Those at increased risk for heat-related illnesses may have jobs that require work in these conditions (such as construction or farming). Children and the elderly are also at greater risk, as are those without access to shelter," Wentworth explains. General measures to avoid these illnesses includes taking cooling breaks from prolonged exposure to warm, sunny, and/or humid environments (think: sporting events, beach days, or yardwork), staying hydrated, and wearing cool and loose clothing.
According to Wentworth, "sun poisoning" is a term not often used formally in medicine, but it is used by the public to describe a sunburn accompanied by other symptoms, such as "dehydration, dizziness, fever, headache, and even increased heart rate." It's important to note that these symptoms are also associated with heat exhaustion and heat stroke. "In general, if you or someone you know starts to experience any new symptoms beyond sunburn (such as changes in thinking or mood, heavy sweating, sensation of rapid heart rate, stomach upset) during, or shortly after, time in warm, sunny, and/or humid weather, it is best to seek immediate medical attention, as untreated heat-related illness can (at worst) lead to organ damage that may have long-term consequences," Wentworth says.
Common in summer, sunburn refers to an injury affecting the skin only and can show up as redness, swelling, and occasional blistering. "This can develop into peeling of the skin with significant pain and discomfort," says Wentworth. To sooth sunburns, Wentworth suggests "using cool compresses and plain petroleum jelly (Vaseline)" but notes that time and avoidance of the sun also helps.
Occurring when there is a loss of fluids and salt in the body, heat exhaustion can manifest in many ways, including cramping, difficulty breathing, nausea and vomiting, sweating, and weakness. "This is treated with fluid replacement, as well as use of fans, ice packs, and other cooling devices," says Wentworth.
Stemming from heavy exercise in hot environments, heat cramps are "muscle-focused symptoms that result in painful muscle spasms, but people suffering from this may also experience fatigue, nausea and vomiting, and sweating," says Wentworth. Counteract symptoms by resting and cooling down, drinking water or electrolyte-containing sports drink, and gently massaging the affected muscle area.
The most severe heat-related illness, heat stroke has numerous possible symptoms that can include changes in mental status, lack of sweating, nausea, and vomiting. "This condition may even progress to coma, seizures, and organ damage, requiring emergent care, often in an ICU," warns Wentworth. While you should seek immediate medical attention if you or someone you know exhibits these symptoms, getting the person to a cooler place, helping to cool the person down and removing excess clothing can help deter extended issues.
Also known as "miliaria," heat rash is more common in children but can occur at any age, especially in hot and humid settings. "This affects only the skin and manifests with pinpoint, clear or red bumps that may arise anywhere on the body," says Wentworth. The rash may also be itchy and according to Wentworth, suggested treatment involves cooling environments to reduce sweating.