There are so many amazing things we are yet to unravel about the human body system. The body has natural defenses against heat and sun. Even when a person feels hot on a summer day, their body is normally able to maintain a constant internal temperature using mechanisms such as sweating. The body’s defense against the suns burning rays is melanin, the skins pigment and natural sunscreen. However, when someone spends too much time in very hot or sunny conditions, the body’s natural defenses may break down, leading to sunburn, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
The skin becomes sunburned when it has been exposed for a long period to the damaging ultraviolet rays of the sun. When light skinned individuals get sunburned, the skin is red, painful and in severe cases blistered. Heat exhaustion is characterized by fever, headache, nausea, fatigue and muscle cramps. Heat stroke can be life threatening. Symptoms include higher fever, absence of sweating, and neurological symptoms such as mental confusion and loss of consciousness due to the failure of the body’s temperature-regulating mechanisms.
Heat injuries are the result of dehydration caused by spending too much time in heat without replacing fluids and electrolytes lost through perspiration. Dehydration impairs the functioning of the body’s cooling mechanism, resulting in heat exhaustion. If this is not treated, it can progress to heatstroke.
Sunburn is caused by ultraviolet light from the sun. The amount of times it takes to cause sunburn depends on the shade of the skin and the time of the day. Light coloured skin burns faster than dark skin because it has less melanin. Regardless of the skin type, sunburn occurs faster during midday, when the sun’s rays are strongest. Several medications can increase the skins sensitivity to the sun and the risk of sunburn, including topical retinoic acid for acne, oral contraceptives, tricyclic antidepressants, and some antibiotics.
To prevent heat injuries, take precautions against becoming dehydrated and overheated. Be especially vigilant as regards medications that could cause dehydration as a side effect. Drink plenty water during the day, but be careful to also replace needed minerals and electrolytes if you are exercising by drinking a sports drink or taking a specially formulated supplement. Reduce consumption of alcohol and caffeine on hot days. On hot days, wear lightweight clothing and limit strenuous activity. If active, take periodic breaks. If someone develops any of the symptoms of heat exhaustion, such as nausea or headache, they should cool themselves by drinking an electrolyte solution or sports drink to replace lost fluids and salts, and by taking a swim or going into the shade or an air conditioned building. To limit the amount of sunburn, limit the amount of time spent outdoors from 10am to 2pm, when the risk of sunburn is greatest.
Green Tea, as well as beta carotene and lycopene, two antioxidant nutrients, may reduce the risk of sunburn. However, because research on these alternative remedies is not definitive, they should not be considered a replacement for proven measures to prevent sunburn.
Heat injuries and sunburn can be diagnosed from the symptoms. See a doctor immediately or go to the nearest emergency room with symptoms of heat stroke. Further testing may be needed to detect complications such as muscle damage.
First aid is usually sufficient to treat heat exhaustion and sunburn. Heat stroke often requires medical treatment.
- Heat Exhaustion: The preventive measures discussed earlier are often sufficient. In addition, loosen or remove unnecessary clothing and apply cool compresses to the skin. If symptoms do not improve, call a doctor.
- Heatstroke: This is an emergency. Before reaching the hospital, first aid to cool the body can be helpful, such as wrapping in wet sheets. Do not use fever-reducing medicines, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen-they cannot lower the fever. Other medications may be needed for complications such as seizure.
- Sunburn: Cool compresses can relieve the discomfort. If blisters form, cover them with bandages to prevent infection. Ibuprofen or acetaminophen, can be helpful to lower temperature if there is a fever.