It seems that only a short while ago we were trudging through snow and ice, wishing that spring would start. Now we are already in the middle of our Great British Summer and the weather has blessed us with some lovely hot sunny days recently. It might make us all that bit more cheerful to spend time in the sunshine, but with strong sunlight and heat comes certain problems if you are not too careful.
We have all experienced the pain of sunburn at some point in our lives, and maybe sunstroke, heat exhaustion or dehydration. Many of us only experience it relatively mildly and perhaps don’t stop to think about how serious these conditions can be. You don’t have to be trekking through desert terrain on another continent, simply getting carried away for a day when the British sun makes an appearance can play havoc with your health. So what should you know about staying safe in the sun?
We all know what happens to your skin if you spend too long in direct sunlight without protecting it properly. You burn. It can be mild, where your skin turns a bit pink, hot, tender or itchy through to painful, blistering second degree burns. Neither does it matter what colour your skin is, darker skin may have a little more natural protection but you can still get sunburn.
Sunburn itself can be painful and sore, but it is not likely to kill you – well, not immediately anyway. However, when someone is sunburned, they are more likely to also be experiencing heat exhaustion, sunstroke or dehydration as well, all of which are more immediately dangerous.
It is now well researched however, that sunburn increases the risks of cancer in the future. Cancer Research UK suggests that getting sunburnt just once every 2 years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer, which is something that you definitely don’t want to experience.
The name explains it really. If a person gets too hot then they may develop heat exhaustion, which includes the following symptoms: headache, dizziness/confusion, tiredness, feeling sick, excessive sweating, intense thirst, cramps in the stomach, legs or arms, fast breathing or pulse and temperature above 38C. Without intervention, this can quickly escalate into an even more serious problem known as heatstroke or sunstroke.
NHS UK advises that in the event that someone has heat exhaustion, it is essential to cool them down. Move them to a cool place and get them to lie down with their feet slightly raised. Give them plenty of water (but not icy or freezing) and cool their skin down through water sprays, sponges or wet flannels. Use of ice packs on armpits and the neck can help too. They should start feeling better within 30 minutes. If they don’t, then they may have heatstroke and further medical attention should be sought.
This is a potentially life-threatening condition and medical help should be sought immediately. Despite two names being used, they are the same thing. It tends to be referred to as sunstroke when it has been brought on by sun exposure, but you don’t need to be in the sun to get it, it develops from the body becoming too hot.
The symptoms to watch out for are: failing to feel better after 30 mins of cooling down, a temperature which has risen to 40C or more, feeling hot and dry, not sweating despite being too hot, rapid shallow breathing, confused, agitated, delirious, seizures or they are unconscious or unresponsive.
We can’t survive very long without drinking, water is essential to keeping us alive. If we don’t take enough fluids in to replace what we’re losing, our bodies quickly show the signs of dehydration; dark and strong smelling urine, infrequent passing of urine, thirst, headache, dry mouth, lips and eyes, tiredness and feeling dizzy. These are the initial warning signs and should be treated with plenty of water, rehydration salts and rest.
If left untreated, it becomes life-threatening and medical advice is needed. More severe symptoms are no passing urine for more than eight hours, dizziness that won’t go away, seizures and weak or rapid pulse.
The risks of dehydration are increased by hot weather, exercise or strenuous activity, excessive alcohol, diarrhea and vomiting and some medications.
How to Stay Safe in the Sun:
You can take a few simple steps to protect yourself from all of the above when the weather gets hot:
- Wear lightweight, loose clothing layers to protect your skin and keep you cool. Fabrics protect better when they are a tight weave, not see-through and are kept dry.
- Cover up with good quality sunglasses and a sun hat, ideally one that shades your face and neck.
- Use sunscreen. Look for a product with at least a four star UVA rating and a high SPF. Apply generously and regularly.
- Stay in the shade, especially between 11am and 3pm, whether home or abroad, as this is when the sun’s rays are at their strongest (and most damaging). It doesn’t mean you have to go indoors, just stay under trees or a parasol for example.
- Drink plenty of water and fluids little and often.
- Avoid alcohol.
- Stay cool. If you are getting too hot, move into the shade or indoors, lie down, remove clothing and use water and fans to cool yourself down before it develops into heat exhaustion or worse.
- Avoid doing exercise or heavy activities during the hottest parts of the day.
- If you are planning on undertaking demanding activities (such as a desert trek), then ensure you have the correct training, fitness levels and acclimatisation preparation in place, along with the proper equipment and hydration.
- Be aware that babies and very young children, the elderly and people with existing medical conditions are all at higher risk of problems associated with sun and heat exposure.