Direct Line magazine

How to treat sunburn and heatstroke

Updated on: 30 March 2020

A woman on a beach with sunblock on her back.

With temperatures rising in the UK, and summer holidays to even hotter destinations on the horizon, it can be easy to forget the dangers of the sun.

But don’t sacrifice your health for the sake of a good tan.

From sunburn to sunstroke, find out how to spot the warning signs and what to do if your day in the sun turns sour.

Dealing with sunburn

If you fall asleep in the sun, forget to reapply sunblock after getting in and out of the sea or only put on factor 10 when you needed factor 30 – you’re going to burn.

The risk is greater if you have pale skin that’s more sensitive to the sun, or you’re exposed to strong UV rays. It’s the exposure to these UV rays that causes almost all skin cancers.

Be extra careful if:

  • You have freckles

  • You have red or fair hair

  • You have lots of moles

  • You’re in a hot country with intense sun

  • You have a family history of skin cancer

Although sunburn is short-term, long-term risks from exposure to UV rays include:

  • Premature aging and wrinkly skin

  • Eye problems – including cataracts

  • Actinic (solar) keratosis – rough pre-cancerous spots on the skin

  • Skin cancer – both melanoma and non-melanoma

So although your sunburn may settle and eventually disappear, you might pay for it in later life – so protect yourself.

Cancer Research UK has a guide that can help you figure out your skin type and judge your risk of burning.

There’s also something called the 'shadow rule'. Just take a look at your shadow, if it’s shorter than you are then it means the UV rays are strong and it’s time to find some shade.

And don't forget, the Met Office updates the UV index daily so you can check out how intense the rays are before you leave the house.

How to prevent sunburn

Don’t be fooled into thinking that sunburn is just something you need to worry about when you’re abroad - you still have to protect your skin in the UK.

Here, you’re most likely to get burnt from March to October, between 11am to 3pm. Obviously the UV rays are most intense in the summer months, so you have to be even more careful then.

Ways to protect yourself:

  • Thin trousers, skirts or long tops to cover your skin

  • A hat to shade your face, neck and ears

  • Wraparound sunglasses to stop the UV rays getting in

  • At least SPF20 waterproof sunscreen - apply this 30 minutes before you go outside, and top up as recommended on the bottle

  • Also reapply sunscreen every time you get out of the sea and if you’ve been sweating

  • If you’re bald and you don’t have a hat, then make sure you cream your head

And don’t forget these tips when it comes UV rays:

  • Altitude is a factor, as the higher you venture the stronger the UV rays – which is why skiers and mountaineers sometimes get caught out.

  • Clouds might seem like they’re providing a protective cover, but even on overcast skies 30-40% of UV will still make it through

  • Reflection is another thing people overlook – snow, sand, concrete and water can all reflect UV rays

Sunbathing on a mountain

How to soothe sunburn

So you stayed in the shade and reapplied your sunscreen throughout the day, and yet somehow you still managed to get a spot of sunburn. Don’t despair; you can do a few things to soothe the burn…

  • Stay hydrated and drink lots of water

  • Aloe vera gel is cool and soothing, especially if you keep it in the fridge

  • Take cool showers and baths

  • Try a porridge bath – scoop some uncooked porridge oats into a sock and tie up the top. Then add the sock to a slightly cool bath and squeeze it a few times so the water goes cloudy. It can help reduce swelling and the associated pain

  • Cool plain yogurt may help as it has enzymes and probiotics which naturally heal your burn – wash off with cool water

  • Make sure your skin stays hydrated by gently rubbing on moisturising lotion - if you keep your skin moist it should stop it from peeling

Dealing with heatstroke

A form of hyperthermia, heatstroke is a serious medical emergency. It can occur if your body temperature gets too high (above 40°C) and your body is unable to lower it.

If you become dehydrated, your body can’t sweat to lower the temperature, and this can also lead to heatstroke. So remember to drink loads of water, especially when the weather heats up.

Who’s most at risk of heatstroke?

The elderly and infants are considered at high risk of heatstroke. This is because the central nervous system, which is responsible for keeping the right internal temperature, has not formed yet in young children, and also starts to deteriorate once you hit 65.

People that drink excessive amounts of alcohol can quickly become dehydrated, so it’s important they drink plenty of water (as should everyone else).

Athletes and outside workers are also at higher risk of heatstroke, especially on sunny days. So try and avoid any strenuous activity in hot weather and remember to drink lots of fluid.

Apparently sleep deprivation makes you more susceptible to heatstroke. Plus, sudden exposure at the beginning of a heatwave can increase your chances.

What are the signs of heatstroke?

You might suffer from heat exhaustion before you get heatstroke.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Fatigue

  • Weakness

  • Headache

  • Muscle cramp

  • Dizziness

Whereas common signs of heatstroke include:

  • High temperature

  • No signs of sweating, with flushed skin

  • A rapid pulse

  • Confusion

  • Disorientation

  • Seizure

  • Coma

What to do if you think you have heatstroke

You must act quickly as heatstroke can damage the brain and other internal organs, sending the victim into a coma and even eventually resulting in death.

The first thing to do is call 999, and then try and cool the patient down.

If possible, move them to a shady area, remove clothing and try to get them to drink a cool drink – but not alcohol or anything with caffeine.

Fan them, or wet their skin with a sponge or garden hose. You can also apply ice packs to the patient’s armpits, back, neck and groin to bring their temperature down.

Dealing with sunstroke

Sunstroke is a form of heatstroke that you get from too much sun exposure. If you follow all the sunburn prevention methods above, then you should be able to avoid sunstroke.

However, if you do start to show the signs of heatstroke after too much sun, then call the emergency services and get cool as quickly as possible.

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