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Sunstroke and heatstroke: symptoms, signs and treatment

Lesley Dobson / 28 July 2020 ( 09 May 2022 )

Sunstroke and heatstroke are potentially life-threatening conditions if you get too hot. Find out how to spot the signs and treat the symptoms.

A high temperature is one of the main signs of heatstroke and sunstroke

Love hot weather? Be careful that you don’t overdo it. Summer temperatures at home and abroad can hit heights that can be dangerous for your health. In the summer of July 2019 we hit the highest temperature ever recorded in the UK - a staggering 38.7C.

Being careful when it’s hot isn’t just a question of avoiding sunburn, being too hot can have a dangerous effect on your whole body. The conditions caused by over-heating are known as heat exhaustion, heatstroke and sunstroke.

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What's the difference between sunstroke and heatstroke?

Heatstroke and sunstroke are essentially the same condition - a more serious form of heat exhaustion where your core body temperature gets dangerously high. The term  'sunstroke' is often used for heatstroke when it has developed by being in the sun.

Read about sunburn and how to treat sunburn

Heat exhaustion symptoms

When our body temperature is normal it measures around 37 degrees C or 98.6 degrees F. Health problems start when your body’s internal (core) temperature rises to 40 degrees C or 104 degrees F or more.

Heat exhaustion is less dangerous than heatstroke or sunstroke. With heat exhaustion you feel very hot, and the amount of water and salt in your body drops below normal levels, causing dehydration. You may also feel dizzy and confused.

What is sunstroke and heatstroke?

Sunstroke and heatstroke happen when your body's internal (core) temperature goes over 40 degrees C or 104 degrees F. This is most likely going to be causes by the sun (sunstroke) such as while sunbathing.

Heatstroke and sunstroke symptoms

Heatstroke and sunstroke are far more serious than heat exhaustion. These conditions can happen when your body’s internal (core) temperature goes over 40 degrees C or 104 degrees F.

A high temperature is one of the main signs of sunstroke and heatstroke.

Signs & symptoms of heatstroke/sunstroke may also include:

  • Painful, throbbing headache
  • Feeling desperately thirsty
  • Feeling very hot
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Being agitated
  • Behavioural changes such as confusion, disorientation 
  • Being irritable
  • Being delirious
  • Seizures
  • Having a drop in blood pressure 
  • Fast pulse
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Losing consciousness / fainting

If you see someone with these symptoms call for medical help immediately.

Can you get heatstroke from a sunbed?

Heatstroke is most commonly caused by too much sun exposure but people have also been reported to experience heat exhaustion and even heatstroke from tanning beds, with some people feeling sick or nauseous after a tanning session.

If you're planning on using a sunbed start with shorter sessions to begin with. Five minutes in a sunbed is equivalent to about an hour in the sun and it's best to gradually build-up your tan and not overdo it in the first few sessions. It's also important to stay hydrated so drink water before and after your session to avoid heat exhaustion or dehydration. Speak to the salon staff about any issues you have.

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How you can help someone with heat exhaustion or heatstroke

Heat exhaustion treatment 

Heat exhaustion can make you feel quite unwell, but if caught at this stage, shouldn’t usually be serious. If you are concerned that you – or someone else – has heat exhaustion, take these steps as soon as you can.

It’s important to reduce the body temperature, so find somewhere cool where the person with you can lie down, and take off as much of their clothing as possible. The next step is to cool them down as much as you can. Use a cool, damp cloth on their skin, to help bring their temperature down.

While their skin is damp, fan them with anything you have to hand. By doing this you’ll encourage the moisture on their skin to evaporate, which is a natural way of cooling the body down. The next step is to give them something cool (but not freezing) to drink slowly.

In cases of heat exhaustion this should help the person affected feel better. However, if the person doesn’t improve within about 30 minutes, or they become unconscious at any point, and/or have seizures, call 999.

Sunstroke/heatstroke is potentially life threatening and is classed as a medical emergency.

Heatstroke treatment 

Sunstroke/heatstroke is potentially life threatening and is classed as a medical emergency. If you see someone with heatstroke/sunstroke seizures, call 999 and ask for an ambulance to come urgently.

It can help the ambulance crew if you are able to tell them if the person you’re with has any health conditions, and if they are taking medication regularly.

Some people, such as older people, young children, and those who have a health condition, are at increased risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. There may be other important information that you should pass on if you know it. For instance, if the person has been ill lately, especially if they might already be dehydrated, and if they have been exercising in the heat.

How can you avoid heat exhaustion and heatstroke?

Take precautions in the sun, especially if you are not used to it (for example on holiday somewhere with a much higher temperature). If you're out and about in the hot sun keep hydrated, wear lose clothing and try to stay out of direct sunlight during the hottest part of the day. Pay particular attention to elderly relatives and young children who may not vocalise that they are uncomfortable or feeling sick.

Always pay attention to how you're feeling and if you get headaches or feel sick while in the sun cool down to reduce the risk of heatstroke developing.

For more health information, check out our other health and wellbeing articles.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.