It’s a beautiful summer morning and you head to the beach. By mid-afternoon you’re on your way to the ER.
What went wrong?
Odds are, you thought the sun was your friend. But too much of a good thing can make you sick.
The most common sun-related problem is sunburn. Fortunately the risk of sunburn often chases us inside before we suffer an even worse fate. Sunburn is indeed a burn, caused by the ultraviolet rays of the sun, both UVB and UVA. The superficial layers of your skin are actually cooked and start leaking fluid, like a sizzling steak. Once the damage is done there is no medical cure except to allow your body to heal itself. Pain medications and cool compresses may relieve the discomfort, but do not speed healing. Do yourself a favor and leave your sunburn alone. You don’t want scarring from peeling a deep sunburn, or infection from opening the blisters.
Certainly prevention is the best answer. Avoid direct exposure to the sun between 10 and 4 p.m. Always use a sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher, and apply it to all sun-exposed areas a good half hour before exposure. Even sunscreens that claim to be water resistant should be reapplied every few hours after sweating or swimming.
When the core of your body becomes overheated, not just the skin, the danger becomes much greater. The body core can become overheated due to direct sun exposure on a hot day, or other high temperature environments, especially when physical activity is involved. Below 80 degrees Fahrenheit this rarely happens. Above 130 degrees F the danger is extreme. Between 80 and 130 degrees the danger rises dramatically.
The body becomes overheated from a combination of internal heat production (as in fever) and external heat. In order to maintain a normal body temperature the body must be able to get rid of excess body heat. Think of your car engine, for example. If the fan goes bad or the water leaks out, it will overheat. Similarly, if the body cannot be cooled through a combination of evaporation (sweating), convection (a cool breeze), conduction (cold packs or cool water, or radiation, it, too, will become overheated.
A car that overheats will start sputtering and steaming, and eventually quits working. So will your body. The first symptom you are likely to experience is heat cramps, which generally occur in the calf muscles or abdominal muscles. Stretching your muscles before exercise and keeping yourself hydrated with a sports drink such as Gatorade can help prevent heat cramps. If they do occur, stop exercise, cool your body, and if you haven’t done so already, drink some Gatorade.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses too much water and/or sodium. Core body temperature is usually between 100.4 and 104 degrees F. Again, an adequate intake of sports drinks can help prevent heat exhaustion. In addition to heat cramps, you may experience light-headedness, confusion, headache, nausea, vomiting, and lack of urination. For milder symptoms, immediate cooling with fans or water is helpful. However for severe symptoms, especially disorientation, other mental symptoms, or a rapid heart rate, you should seek immediate medical attention, where a doctor can check your electrolytes and provide the proper balance of replacement fluids through an I.V.
The worst case scenario is heat stroke (sun stroke, if due to the sun). Heat stroke can be deadly, especially if treatment is delayed. At an internal temperature of 104 or above the internal organs stop functioning properly. Therefore, heat stroke is a medical emergency – call 911 immediately.
Symptoms of heat stroke can occur even when a person is not sweating. Confusion is common, which may delay recognition of the problem, especially in the elderly. Persons suffering from heat stroke should be moved to a shady area and excess clothing should be removed. A heat stroke victim should be doused with water and/or fanned, and ice packs should be applied to the armpits, groin, and neck until professional help arrives.
In summary, avoiding hot environments and keeping well-hydrated are the answer to preventing most heat and sun related problems. Don’t plan to run a marathon on a hot summer day, especially if you are not conditioned to the heat. Keep an eye on granny, in particular if her home is not air-conditioned. Don’t leave your children or pets in the car where the sun can bake them. Preventing the problem in the first place is the key to avoiding life-threatening illness.