If you've ever spent the evening with a headache or feeling nauseous after a day in the heat, you're already familiar with sunstroke. This is what happens when your head is exposed to high temperatures, leading to a build-up of heat and inflammation of the meninges (the membranes enveloping the brain and spinal cord). It can happen quickly, especially in very young children, as the top of their skull is still thin and they don't have much hair. There are a number of signs that a baby or infant is suffering from sunstroke. They're often restless or grumpy and their head gets hot and red.
A mere nuisance, or life-threatening
The condition occurs in various degrees of seriousness, from sunstroke and heat exhaustion to heatstroke (hyperthermia syndrome). Whereas the symptoms of sunstroke will usually pass by themselves once you've drunk a lot of fluids and got some sleep, the most extreme form, heatstroke, constitutes a medical emergency. Its precursor is heat exhaustion. This is when the person has already overheated and has a temperature of between 37 and 40 degrees Celsius (measured rectally). In addition to the signs of sunstroke, they will also have symptoms ranging from fever, vomiting, a feeling of being sick, vision problems, a fast pulse and low blood pressure all the way to unconsciousness. Heatstroke, where the person's temperature is over 40, is life-threatening. At this point their symptoms might include cramps; hot, dry skin; rapid, shallow breathing; serious dizziness and light-headedness; and in some cases even hallucinations.
If you suspect heatstroke you should respond as follows:
- Call an emergency doctor and describe the situation.
- Move the person affected to a shady, cool place.
- Place them in a half-sitting position so that their head is elevated. If they're unconscious and breathing you can put them in the lateral recumbent (recovery) position.
- Keep an eye on the person and check their breathing and pulse.
- Their overheated body should be cooled down. It helps to loosen or remove their clothes, fan air over them or apply cold cloths.
Smart people protect themselves – from the sun as well
To prevent this from happening in the first place you and your kids should wear light-coloured headgear to protect your head. Whatever you're doing outdoors, avoid the blazing sun between 11am and 3pm, or stay in the shade as much as possible. Drink water regularly and make sure that your children also get enough fluids.