When you’ve overdone your time in the sun

July 6, 2016 Providence Health Team

In the summer, playtime can become dangerous if you don’t protect yourself from the sun and heat. Consequences from overexposure range from mild discomfort like a stinging sunburn to deadly sun stroke. Learn how to recognize and treat heat stroke, heat rash, heat exhaustion and severe sunburn.

Recognizing and treating heat stroke

Heat stroke, the most serious sun-related illness, occurs when the body can no longer regulate its own temperature. Sufferers may become confused or fall unconscious. If the condition isn’t treated right away, it can result in disability or death.

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • A temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Red, hot and dry skin, with no sweating
  • A strong, rapid pulse
  • A throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Slurred speech
  • Seizures
  • Confusion
  • Passing out

If someone shows any of these symptoms, call 911 or get medical help immediately. In the meantime, get the victim out of the sun and into the shade and cool him as quickly as you can, however you can. For example, put the victim in a cool shower, under a garden hose or apply cool, wet cloths or ice to the head, neck, armpits and groin as you continue to monitor the victim’s temperature. Bring it below 103 degrees as quickly as possible.

Recognizing and treating heat exhaustion

People may also suffer from heat exhaustion, a milder heat-related illness. Keep in mind that heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, and should still be treated immediately.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Cramping
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea

Treat heat exhaustion by doing what you can to lessen a victim’s exposure to heat. Have the victim take a cool bath and drink cool, non-alcoholic beverages. Get him or her out of the heat if possible, even if it means leaving a BBQ at a park, turning on the air conditioning in a waiting car or renting an air conditioned hotel room during a heat wave.

Anyone can experience heat exhaustion or heat stroke, but risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Youth or old age
  • Taking certain medications, like diuretics
  • Problems with blood pressure

If the victim is showing signs of heat stroke, such as vomiting, fever or confusion, seek medical attention right away.

Recognizing and treating heat rash

Heat rash is a form of skin irritation that results from the collection of sweat, often in creases in the skin. It’s best treated by keeping the skin clean and dry. There are very mild heat rashes and those that are deeper in the skin and more severe.

See health care provider if:

  • The rash gets worse or won’t go away
  • There is redness, swelling or pain in the area
  • The rash is hot to the touch
  • The lesions are pus filled
  • The nearby lymph nodes become swollen
  • The rash is accompanied by chills or fever

Recognizing and treating severe sunburn

You can be burned before realizing it if you don’t take precautions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests protecting yourself from the sun by:

  • Using sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher and reapplying often
  • Staying in the shade, especially when the sun is highest in the sky
  • Protecting exposed skin with clothing and a hat with a wide brim
  • Wearing sunglasses that block ultraviolet rays, both UVA and UVB
  • Drinking plenty of fluids

For more information about what type of sunscreen to use, see our sunscreen 101 tips.

If you or someone you know suffers a severe sunburn (sometimes called sun poisoning) with red, painful and/or itchy skin that’s hot to the touch and blisters or peels:

  • Get out of the sun and stay out of it.
  • Take an over-the-counter pain reliever like aspirin or ibuprofen (unless a medical provider suggests otherwise) to relieve pain, headache and fever.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Soothe burns with cool baths or by gently applying cool, wet cloths regularly.
  • Apply a simple moisturizing cream or an aloe vera gel for additional relief.

The best sunburn creams:

  • DO include aloe vera or soy in the ingredient list
  • Do NOT have petroleum, lidocaine or benzocaine

If you’re really uncomfortable, consider adding a hydrocortisone cream. If blisters develop, don’t break them. Cover them gently with gauze or a bandage.

If the sunburn is extensive, you are dehydrated, have a high fever, chills or extreme, persistent pain, seek medical help.

Each sunburn puts you at a greater risk of skin cancer. If you burn easily or often, skin cancer runs in your family or you just want to play it safe, consider scheduling a whole body skin cancer check with a dermatologist.

More resources

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discuss the symptoms and treatment of heat-related illnesses on its website. The U.S. National Library of Medicine collects multiple resources for heat-related illnesses and treatments on its site.

Discuss your risk of heat-related illness and precautions you should take with your provider. Talk with your family’s pediatrician about keeping your kids safe from heat and sun. You can find a Providence provider here.


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