GP Dr Ciaran Roarty continues his hugely-popular medical column on all aspects of everyday health. This week he addresses the issue of the dangers of the sun to our health.
We all know about the risks of excessive sun exposure on the skin and skin cancer, but in the more immediate shorter term, too much sun can cause heat exhaustion and if not taken care of, heatstroke.
Too much heat means the body has to work really hard to keep your bodies temperature at the same steady level. This can cause you to feel generally lethargic, dizzy or even sick – this is heat exhaustion.
Heatstroke happens when your body’s ability to regulate its own temperature is overcome and the temperature rises to over 40 ° C. Sunstroke is a particular kind of heatstroke caused by being exposed to the sun.
While excessive heat can cause problems for anyone, certain groups of people are more at risk. These include babies and toddlers, elderly people, patients on certain medications such as water tablets (diuretics) or people with gastrointestinal conditions associated with diarrhoea.
Patients with chronic conditions such as cardiac or respiratory conditions may also be more at risk. Sports people who exercise vigorously in strong sunlight may also develop problems.
The key symptoms and signs to watch out for include passing really dark urine (your body is conserving water) , light-headedness, lethargy, headache, nausea, excessive sweating and muscle cramps. If we think we have heat exhaustion we should move to a cooler environment, have a cool bath or shower and preferably lie near a fan while your skin is still damp. We should drink fluids ( non-alcoholic) and if not feeling better in about half an hour it is advisable to get medical attention. If we don’t attend to the symptoms of heat exhaustion, heat stroke ( or sun stroke if caused by sunlight ) may follow and this is an emergency
At this stage, your body is unable to cope with the excessive heat and your temperature soars. You may have a severe throbbing headache and vomit. Breathing becomes rapid and the skin has a flushed appearance. Interestingly sweating disappears despite being so hot but you may feel dizzy, confused and sometimes agitated. Sometimes seizures may occur or you may pass out.
Treatment is required in hospital straightaway and an ambulance should be called. It is unlikely the person themselves may be able to treat themselves so you should lie them down somewhere cool while waiting. Open clothing and wetting the skin with a sponge or a cool shower also helps followed by fanning. Icepacks to the armpits, neck and back are sometimes used in young fit athletic people. If the person passes out they should be placed in the recovery position.
How can we prevent heat exhaustion?
Fluid intake is vital and caffeinated drinks should be kept to moderation. Alcohol actually dehydrates and should be avoided. Strenuous exercise in the midday heat (11am to 3pm) should be avoided while loose natural fibre clothing helps our body evaporate heat by sweating. Regular cool showers are useful if you feel warm as well as damp flannels on your neck. Try to stay in the colder rooms in your house ( those not in direct sunlight)
The above information is intended as advice only and should you have any concerns contact your own Doctor.
Dr Ciarán Roarty MB, BCh BAO MICGP DRCOG Grad. Cert. Obst. Ultrasound
is a full-time GP at Scally McDaid Medical Practice, Scally Place, Letterkenny, Tel 0749164111
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