GP tips and advice: Spotting heat stroke

Dr Dawn Richards, GP at health insurer VitalityHealth, considers how to spot and treat heat stroke

The UK is set to bask in souring summer temperatures later this month with the heatwave expected to return, meanwhile tourists are now able to travel abroad and are enjoying the warm weather in parts of the EU.

And while many may be tempted to head outdoors to soak up the summer sun, it’s important to remember that over exposure to heat can pose a serious risk to health.

VitalityHealth GP Dr Dawn Richards explains how to spot the signs of heat stroke and what to do next – information that could save your own, or someone else’s life.

Although almost 2,000 heat-related deaths are thought to occur in the UK each year, and these figures only increasing during a heatwave according to British Medical Journal, Dr Dawn believes that many people still don’t know the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Heat Exhaustion vs Heat Stroke

“In very hot and humid weather, sweat cannot evaporate quickly enough, and the body cannot cool itself down,” explains Dr Dawn.

“Our body temperature will start to rise as a result and develop into heat exhaustion, and, if not treated, this condition can very quickly lead to a serious condition called heat stroke. Heat stroke, also known as sun stroke, is a medical emergency and must be treated immediately.

“Heat exhaustion is caused by loss of salt and water from the body through excessive sweating. Perspiration is your body’s natural way of cooling itself. Symptoms should improve quickly by cooling and rehydrating the body, but if left untreated it can progress to heatstroke.

“The symptoms are often the same in adults and children, although children may become floppy and sleepy.”

Heat Exhaustion Heat Stroke
Headache Vomiting
Nausea and loss of appetite Severe headache
Confusion / feeling dizzy Loss of consciousness / becoming less responsive
Clammy skin with sweating Seizures
Muscle and abdominal cramps Skin feels hot and dry
Fast, faint pulse and rapid Shortness of breath or confusion
Shallow breathing Temperature above 40 °C

Who is most at risk?

Children, the elderly and people with long-term health problems, particularly cardiovascular disease are more at risk. Keep an extra close eye on those most vulnerable this week, and help them to stay safe and cool.

What do I do if I think someone is suffering from heat exhaustion?

  • Help them get to a cool place and lie down with their feet raised.
  • Encourage them to drink plenty of water or a sports drink to help replace some of the water and salts lost through sweating.
  • Cool the skin using a flannel soaked in cold water, cold packs on the neck, wrists or armpits, or by fanning them.
  • Seek medical advice as early as possible if the person is in an ‘at-risk’ group – children, the elderly, people suffering from cardiovascular diseases or other chronic illnesses or those treated with medications that affect the brain such as: sedatives, Parkinson’s disease medication, and mediation for certain mental health problems.

How do I know if the heat exhaustion has escalated to heat stroke?

If they are not improving within 30 minutes or displaying any symptoms of heat stroke, call 999. Stay with them while you wait for the emergency services to arrive.

What steps can I take to prevent heat exhaustion?

  • Wear a hat and loose, light-coloured, breathable clothing.
  • Stay well hydrated (8-10 cups of water per day), even if you don’t feel thirsty, more if exercising.
  • Avoid alcohol and strenuous exercise in the heat of the day.
  • Stay out of the direct sun between 11am and 3pm when the sun is hottest.

Sleep Hacks

As temperatures rise this week, our homes will likely become hotter thanks to the use of appliances and increased body heat.

When it comes to bedtime, you might find it harder to get comfortable and cool as a result, so here are some of my top tips for getting a good night’s sleep:

· Turn off lights and electrical items that aren’t in use as they can generate heat.

  • If safe to do so, open windows to get the air moving through the room.
  • Using reflective material outside the window can block the heat from entering. If this is not possible, consider using light colour curtains and keeping them closed.
  • Cool a pillow case in the fridge, or fill a hot water bottle with ice cool water to take to bed with you.
  • A cool shower or bath before bed is also a good way of lowering the body temperature.
  • If you have a fan in the room then placing an icepack in a bowl in front of it can cool down the air circulating in the room.
  • Overactive digestion and dehydration can raise your body temperature in the night.
  • On hot days make sure you keep hydrated during the day and try avoiding drinking alcohol or eating a big meal before bed.
  • In bed, natural fabrics like cotton, silk and wool will help you regulate your body temperature. Cotton sheets and clothing, and lighter weight duvets with a natural fill can help you feel fresher at night.
  • If your bedroom is still too warm consider sleeping in a different part of the house if there is a room which is cooler.