You should really know these 6 symptoms of heatstroke, this week

·5-min read
Photo credit: fizkes - Getty Images
Photo credit: fizkes - Getty Images

As you know, from last night's sweaty sleep, the country is currently in the grip of a heatwave. Today, (Monday 11 July) temperatures are expected to climb up to 33C in parts of the UK, with one Met Office forecaster saying that this could be 'the hottest day of the year so far.' As such, heat-health alerts have been issued, and people are being asked to watch out for more vulnerable and elderly folk, who are at greater risk of heat-related problems.

As to looking after yourself, as the heat rages on? Dr Agostinho Sousa from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has noted that people should, as ever, stay hydrated – and try to find shade between 11am and 3pm, when the sun's rays are at their strongest.

Heatwaves like this, to note, are becoming more extreme and more frequent, as a result of human-made climate change.

While heeding advice is a good place to start, in this weather, it also pays to be aware of the signs of heatstroke.

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke is what happens if you experience heat exhaustion for over 30 minutes, without cooling down. When this happens, and heatstroke occurs, the condition should be treated as an emergency. 'Heat stroke is the worse end of a big spectrum of heat-related conditions,' says Dr Lucy Hooper, a GP at Coyne Medical.

According to the NHS, the signs of heat exhaustion are:

  1. a headache

  2. dizziness and confusion

  3. loss of appetite and feeling sick

  4. excessive sweating and pale, clammy skin

  5. cramps in the arms, legs and stomach

  6. fast breathing or pulse

  7. a high temperature of 38C or above

  8. being very thirsty

Also sometimes called sun stroke, this condition tends to present as a fever that can spiral into unconsciousness. It can occur when it's super hot and your body's temperate-regulating mechanism can't cope with the task of cooling you down.

'When symptoms have become this severe, it is an emergency to cool that person,' says Dr Hooper. 'This is because they have passed their "thermal threshold" – above 40 degrees the membranes, or outer layer of your cells, can become damaged, which can cause enough harm to actually kill cells. In the worst-case scenario, the combination of these events can lead to unconsciousness, coma, multiple organ failure and even death.'

When should you call 999?

The NHS says you should call 999 if you, or someone else, show the signs of heatstroke:

  • feeling unwell after 30 minutes of resting in a cool place and drinking plenty of water

  • not sweating even while feeling too hot

  • a high temperature of 40C or above

  • fast breathing or shortness of breath

  • feeling confused

  • a fit (seizure)

  • loss of consciousness

  • not responsive

What's the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion?

The difference between a heat stroke and heat exhaustion is that, with the former, the body's cooling system stops working.

As such, when heat stroke occurs, it is characterised by heat exhaustion symptoms, with the symptoms listed above layered on top.

Naturally, there is a higher risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke when exercising outdoors, during hot weather. 'Usually when we work out, we have lots of great mechanisms for helping our body cool off,' Dr Hooper says. 'Your body cleverly sends more blood flow to the skin to help it produce more sweat, which enables your body stay cool.'

'To get more blood flow to the skin, you send less blood to your digestive system, which is why lots of people can find it hard to digest foods after exercise. In extreme heat, though, this can cause problems – such as less water being absorbed in your gut.'

How do you treat heat exhaustion?

If you see someone who may be suffering from a heat stroke, the NHS recommends these steps below:

  1. Move to a cool place

  2. Lie down and raise feet slightly

  3. Drink plenty of water

  4. Cool their skin – spray or sponge body with cool water and fan body. Cold packs around the armpits or neck are good, too

The person's body should cool down after 30 minutes. If that does not happen, it's recommended you seek medical care immediately.

How long does it take to recover from heat stroke?

Heat exhaustion can last up to 30-60 minutes. With fast treatment, the recovery for a heat stroke is approximately two days.However, if you have organ damage due to heatstroke then your recovery will take longer – from up to two months to a year.

How to work out in the sun, safely

During the heatwave, it's prudent to avoid exercising outdoors between 11am and 3pm, in line with Dr Sousa's advice. Outside of those times, though, use the following tips from Dr Hooper, to ensure you stay safe while sweating outside.

1. Hydrate

'Particularly, before exercise. If you are doing a long event such as a marathon, it is important you keep hydrated but take care not to over drink.

'Pre-cooling by using cooling clothing, cold water immersion and taking cool drinks before exercise can help prevent symptoms of heat stroke, too.'

2. Don't over-do it

'If you know you are not well or are just recovering from an illness, then it is sensible not to push yourself in hot conditions.

'Make sure you are wearing clothing that will allow your skin to sweat freely and keep cool. If you are concerned about any medication or illness you may have, check with your doctor before strenuous exercise.

'Stomach upsets and having had too much alcohol the day before are heat exhaustion common triggers.'

3. Build up and train your body gradually

'Anyone planning to take part in an event or exercise in hot conditions should plan to get their body used to this beforehand.

It takes the body at least seven days and up to 14 days to really get used to exercising in a hot climate. Start with 30 minutes then build up to 100 minutes; your body will learn to cool itself better.

Ideally, this should be daily, but even every day or two will help. Heart rate monitors can help you check you are not pushing yourself too hard. Unfortunately, when it comes to getting used to exercising in heat we are not all equal, women are more at risk than men.'

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