Your Health A-Z

Did you know sunstroke can lead to a coma?

Sunstroke (also known as heatstroke) isn’t just another name for a bad sunburn. In fact, it has very little to do with sunburn at all.

“Heatstroke occurs when your core body temperature rises to 40 degrees Celsius or higher,” says Dr Jennie Bruwer, a general practitioner at Mediclinic Upington. “And while your skin might show outward signs of sunburn, sunstroke actually detrimentally affects your internal organs.”

Untreated sunstroke can damage your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. And the longer treatment is delayed, the greater your risk of serious complications, coma or death.

Noticeable symptoms of sunstroke include confusion, agitation, slurred speech, irritability, delirium and seizures. You may also feel nauseous, have a headache and experience rapid, shallow breathing. “In addition, your skin may turn red as your body temperature increases and your pulse might quicken as your heart works hard trying to cool your body,” Dr Bruwer says. “Interestingly, despite high temperatures, sunstroke sufferers might not sweat.”

Who is most at risk?

Some people are particularly susceptible to heat-related illnesses, including young children and adults over 65. “This is because, in youngsters, the central nervous system is not fully developed, and in older people, the central nervous system begins to deteriorate. This makes your body less able to cope with changes in temperature,” Dr Bruwer explains.

You are also at risk if you take certain medication such as vasoconstrictors (that narrow your blood vessels), beta-blockers (that block adrenaline), diuretics (that rid your body of sodium and water) and antidepressants or anti-psychotic drugs.

How to avoid sunstroke

The good news is that sunstroke can be avoided if you use your common sense in hot weather by adhering to the following strategies:

  • Apply sunscreen
  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing
  • Keep a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with you
  • Drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids as staying hydrated helps your body sweat and maintain a normal body temperature
  • Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day and limit exercise to early morning or evening

The very real dangers of dehydration

If you suspect someone is suffering a heatstroke…

“…make them stop any exercise or exertion, move them to a cool, shady area and remove any unnecessary clothing. Use fans or cold water sponges to encourage temperature reduction,” Dr Bruwer says. “Remember, true sunstroke is a medical emergency and you need to seek medical attention as soon as possible.”

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.