Sun Exposure and Heatstroke
It is never a good idea to get so much sun that it burns your skin or, worse, makes you ill with heatstroke, which can be fatal. But the latest research reveals sunshine isn’t the wholly bad thing we’ve been told it is. Far from it. In fact it’s worse for your health to stay out of the sunshine altogether than it is to get a safe amount of sunshine. As the respected dermatologist Richard Weller said earlier this year in an article in New Scientist magazine, “Sun has benefits as well as risks, and public health advice needs to reflect this”.
The following information about heatstroke and sunburn reflect the latest research into the benefits of a sensible amount of sunshine. At the end we’ll look at how to avoid too much sun and what to do if you burn your skin or start to feel poorly.
New health advice about sun exposure
Experts no longer recommend staying completely out of the sun. It looks like avoiding sunshine altogether is bad for your health, and in some cases could make you ill or even kill you.
Sunshine and skin cancer – 2 fascinating scientific findings
While some kinds of over-exposure are linked to skin cancer and getting burned is always a bad idea, there isn’t any evidence that sunlight is bad for you per se. There are different types of skin cancer too, some deadly and others that actually increase your life expectancy. Here are the scientists’ findings.
- Only sunbathing twice a year on holiday is worse for you than sunning all year round, with more risk of deadly melanoma, great news for people who spend a lot of time outdoors. People who work indoors or never get any sunshine are at more risk of dangerous cancers outdoor workers and dedicated sunbathers
- Non-melanoma skin cancers are much less dangerous, and recent research shows they can actually benefit your health. Apparently people who have had a non-melanoma skin cancer are less likely to die early than those who haven’t, and they also have a much smaller risk of heart attacks. Weirdly, they’re statistically more likely to live longer and stay healthier
Vitamin D from sunshine is much better than taking supplements
People with high levels of vitamin D are healthier than those with low levels. And vitamin D supplements just don’t do the same job. Exposure to actual sunlight is by far the best route to lower blood pressure, less diabetes, fewer strokes and heart attacks. But it turns out there’s much more to sunshine than Vitamin D alone.
Only sunshine comes with essential nitric oxide
Human skin is full of nitrates. The UV rays in sunshine convert it into nitric oxide and send it back into our bodies. The substance is proven to lower blood pressure, a Nobel Prize winning discovery from 1996. Unlike Vitamin D tablets, sunshine lowers blood pressure enough to reduce the risk of strokes and heart attacks ‘significantly’. It looks like we can lower our blood pressure without drugs. All we need is more sunshine.
Sunbathers live longer than sun-avoiders
A study over two decades looked at pale-skinned Swedish women and their sunbathing habits. 30,000 fair Swedish women were enrolled in the study in 1990, and the results proved revolutionary. The more they had sunbathed, the less likely they were to be dead at the end of the study. Half as likely, in fact, and the researchers believe 3% of all deaths in Sweden happen because of a lack of sunshine.
Another study looked at 40,000 Scandinavian women, finding that those who holidayed most often in hot, sunny places were the least likely to be dead 15 years later.
All change – Time for a new attitude to the sun’s rays
Apparently the authorities will begin spreading this new message to schools, GPs and hospitals soon, in an effort to get us to loosen up a bit and let some sun onto our skin. If you’ve been smothering yourself in factor 50 and covering up for years, it’s time to stop being scared of sunshine. You’ll do your health a whole lot of good by getting out and about in it more often.
How to avoid getting sunburned
You can feel it when your skin starts to burn. It’s your job to keep a weather eye on things and cover up and / or apply sunscreen before it happens. It makes sense to have sunscreen with you at all times when you’re in a hot country, plus a hat, long sleeved and long-leg clothes.
- Keep out of the sun between 11am and 3pm
- Walk in the shade
- Don’t exert yourself
- Wear light, loose-fitting, natural fibre clothing
- Take care for the first few days in a hot country, until you’re acclimatised
The signs and symptoms of heatstroke
Sunburn is one thing, but actual heatstroke is a lot more serious. It can and does kill people. Here’s what to look out for.
- Remember you can get heatstroke without being sunburned
- Look out for a consistently high body temperature of 104 F or more, a classic sign of heatstroke. If it’s happening to you, you will know – you’ll feel terrible
- An uncharacteristic mental state / unusual behaviour, things like aggression and over-excitement
- Low blood pressure
- Intense thirst
- Less or no urination
- Muscle cramps
- More sweating than usual, or an unusual sweating pattern
- Throwing up
- Flushed skin, fast breathing, a fast heart rate and headache
- Confusion and disorientation
- Fits and loss of consciousness
Is heat exhaustion the same as heatstroke?
- When suffering from heat exhaustion you feel very hot and lose water and salts from your body, which makes you feel unwell. If heat exhaustion isn’t spotted and treated, it can end up as heatstroke
- Heatstroke is where your body can’t cool itself down on its own and your temperature soars out of control, the same as sunstroke. If you have a severe case you’ll be hospitalised
What to do when someone has heatstroke symptoms
- Lie them down in a cool place
- Remove unnecessary clothing
- Cool the skin with whatever you have handy, an ice pack or cool water and cloth
- Fan the skin while it’s moist to help with cooling
- Make them drink fluids, ideally water, fruit juice or a special rehydration drink
Most people start recovering within half an hour but if the person is unconscious, put them in the recovery position until help arrives.
How to treat sunburn
- Put a cold, wet cloth on your skin
- Use an aloe vera or soy moisturiser
- Take ibuprofen if it hurts badly
- Drink extra water
- Leave any blisters alone – they’ll heal by themselves. Just keep them clean