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What is Sunstroke?

By Sheri Cyprus
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Sunstroke occurs when the body becomes overheated through overexposure to the sun and the brain cannot control the cooling process of the body. It is different from and more dangerous than heat stroke. Both conditions cause confusion, light-headedness and fatigue, and shade and cool water on the skin helps. However, it is much more serious as the body can control heat exhaustion somewhat by spreading blood flow to the extremities, but it can't control the effects of sunstroke and it requires immediate medical help.

Sunstroke victims have characteristically hot and dry skin as well as a rapid pulse. They may lose consciousness as the brain fights to regulate the body's temperature, but can't. Sunstroke victims always need medical help as soon as possible. Medical professionals need to be sure that it is sunstroke they are dealing with and will need to lower the body temperature safely as well as monitor fluid intake.

Quick breathing, headache and muscle ache may occur along with the hot, dry skin and rapid pulse in cases of sunstroke. The victim may have slurred speech and be in a state of confusion that may even cause them to lash out violently. These symptoms may progress to hallucinations and a lack of consciousness.

Preventive precautions to avoid this condition should be taken whenever possible. When temperatures are high, don't plan to spend a long time in the sun. Expending a lot of physical energy in the sun for prolonged periods can cause sunstroke to occur even faster. Be sure to always have cold water to drink and splash on the skin and to spend some resting time in the shade. Working in the early morning before the sun is at its hottest is a great idea if possible.

Those with health issues as well as the very young, very old and overweight people are often especially susceptible to sunstroke and should avoid spending too much time in the sun. If staying indoors or somewhere cool is not an option, light colored, loose clothing and a wide-brimmed hat should be worn and water should be consumed regularly. It’s important to drink water on hot days even when you don’t feel thirsty, as it helps your body stay cooler longer.

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Discussion Comments
By anon291101 — On Sep 12, 2012

I was told not only to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate, but hydrate with electrolytes, like a water, salt, sugar mixture. One brand name is Gatorade. Gatorade is a brand name but it is so easy to make a favorite flavored juice (sugar) and add salt. These electrolytes are meant to aid the body in balancing the heat. In addition, wear the proper footwear and limit the time in direct sunlight.

By KLR650 — On Aug 03, 2011

When I was in the Army I actually saw a kid die from this. We were in Saudi in the late 90s, and it was about 120 on the average summer day. They were constantly on us to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.

All we ever did was drink water, it seemed. But we wore a ton of gear and we had a hard, physical job, and one of the guys in my unit was overcome by the heat and died. It can hit a combination of body systems, the heart, kidneys, brain (confusion from dehydration and high temperature).

It didn't take long for it to happen, either. And this was an Army infantryman in great shape. So by all means, keep an eye on your loved ones at the beach.

By BigManCar — On Aug 02, 2011

@anon34095 - Sunstroke is not really something you suffer from over a period of years. You get it and then you need to get help for it right away, or you can have serious medical problems.

Maybe "sunstroke" is a common term in some parts of the country for just being overheated and tired. May I ask where you live? I have never heard it used this way, but it would make perfect sense that people could say sunstroke or heatstroke to describe this kind of thing.

By parkthekarma — On Aug 01, 2011

@anon22097- Sunstroke can go way beyond sleeping. It is a serious medical condition and needs to be treated immediately. If it gets that far as to be considered sunstroke, rather than just a sunburn or whatever, it is not just something that you can rest for a while and it will go away.

All kinds of bad things can happen with this condition, especially to children or old people. Drink lots of water and make sure there is shade available when you are out on a hot day, but if you start to exhibit these symptoms, or you notice them in someone else, get help right away.

By yseult — On Aug 01, 2011

@alianor - I'd definitely like to see some ideas on communicating about the effects of sunstroke to students/teens too. I'm afraid that too many of them simply laugh it off and think that it is something that can't really affect them. Do you know of any sunstroke books or educational resources?

By alianor — On Jul 31, 2011

@backdraft - That is an excellent thing to teach your boys! It would be great if more coaches and teachers encouraged students to hydrate themselves regularly too. Excessive heat can be a dangerous thing and sometimes people may not have access to the appropriate sunstroke treatment in time. As they say, prevention is better than a cure! Do you have any ideas on how to spread the word and get students to take sunstroke seriously?

By EricRadley — On Jul 31, 2011

@lighth0se33 - I'm sorry to read that you suffered from sunstroke too! It's actually a lot more common that we think, since many people don't know about the symptoms very well. When working outside, it's best to take regular breaks and head back indoors to cool down and rehydrate yourself. Even working on activities that are not too labor-intensive can begin to produce sun stroke symptoms on warm days.

By AnnBoleyn — On Jul 30, 2011

@anon33097 - To answer your question regarding whether children sleep a lot if they have sunstroke, the answer is no. Sunstroke does cause people to act as if they have an extreme loss of energy, but in extreme cases it can lead to unconsciousness, seizures and even death. Staying outside on a hot day can cause people to feel drowsy from the heat, but that is very different from the typical sunstroke symptoms.

By wavy58 — On Jul 30, 2011

My grandmother suffered a sunstroke while working in her vegetable garden. She felt that she had to stake the tomatoes in the hottest part of the day before the bad storm came in, and while she was out there working, she fell over and fainted.

I found her when I came by for lunch. I took her to the ER, and once they got her stable, they told me that she had suffered permanent brain impairment. Her nervous system would be messed up from then on. She could still communicate fine, but her movements were affected.

By cloudel — On Jul 29, 2011

Unable to resist beach volleyball, I played until I worked up a sunstroke. I knew that something had to be wrong when I noticed that I had stopped sweating. At the beginning of the game, I was slick with sweat, but toward the end, my skin was parched!

My heart had been pounding, so I called a time out and sat down in the shade. I laid down on the picnic table and started hyperventilating. My friends poured cold water on me, but I kept on breathing that way. They ended up taking me to the hospital.

By lighth0se33 — On Jul 29, 2011

I knew it was unwise to work in my flower garden in August, but my poor flowers were getting taken over with weeds. I had to do something, or they would die.

I did wear a loose cotton t-shirt and shorts, plus a straw hat with a brim. I got sunstroke anyway. It probably didn’t help that I was taking beta blockers, because I’ve heard they make you more susceptible to the condition.

My aunt rushed me to the hospital, where they worked to lower my temperature quickly. They gave me an IV drip to replace my fluids and salt. They monitored me overnight for complications, and then they let me go home the next day.

By backdraft — On Jul 28, 2011

I have 2 kids that play high school football and they take tons of precautions to make sure that they don't get sun stroke or other heat related illnesses. This is a big issue when they are having 2 practices a day in the middle of August.

During practice they hydrate thoroughly and then on my orders they guzzle water before and after every practice. This might sound extreme but it seems to work. The boys tell me that there is a big problem with players falling out during practice but my boys have never felt this way. I've got my heart crossed that this is an issue we never have to deal with.

By ceilingcat — On Jul 27, 2011

@indemnifyme - Sun safety is very important! There are a lot of fun things to do in the summertime but staying healthy should be the first concern.

One thing I would like to mention is the importance of sunscreen. Sunscreen doesn't prevent sunstroke, but it can prevent severe sunburn, which isn't good for you either!

By chivebasil — On Jul 27, 2011

Sun stroke can sneak up on you out of nowhere and the effects can be terrible. I had a miserable experience with sunstroke a few years ago and now I take tons of precautions to prevent it from ever happening again. My situation was kind of unique so maybe others can learn from my mistakes.

I was down at a popular lake visiting my parents. We spent one long afternoon driving around in the boat and doing a lot of swimming. When we got back to our campsite at the end of the day I was feeling nauseous, clammy and very sick. I didn't initially think it was sunstroke because I had been in the water all day and had not been sweating. But when I was finally taken to the hospital I was diagnosed with sunstroke immediately.

The hard lesson that I had to learn is that you don't need to be sweating or losing water in obvious ways in order to get sunstroke. Any prolonged exposure to the sun can bring it on. Now I am always careful to hydrate according to a schedule rather than according to how thirsty I feel.

By indemnifyme — On Jul 26, 2011

My mom had sunstroke one summer before I was born. She and my father had taken a vacation to California and she spent the whole day at the beach out in the sun.

When they went back to their hotel my mom got really, really sick. She had to go to the hospital and it took her a few days to get better!

Since she had this experience my mom has been really vigilant my whole life about reminding me to be safe in the heat. I always wear sunscreen, make sure to drink plenty of water, and don't spend too many hours out in the sun.

By popcorn — On Jul 25, 2011

@anon35466 - Most people notice symptoms right after they leave the sun and usually while they are still in it. Sunstroke is one reason why someone would want to get out of the sun at a time they consider early. Often the person will feel really unwell and will try to get away from the heat.

If you have been feeling unwell at the beach, experiencing things like disorientation and nausea, with additional symptoms like hot dry skin and lethargy, there is a good chance you may have sunstroke. It is important to treat it as soon as you suspect something is amiss. As an untreated sunstroke can do a lot of damage.

By drtroubles — On Jul 25, 2011

Sunstroke is one of those you really have to watch out for when you are at the beach on a hot day. My friend spent all morning playing volleyball with her friends and started to feel pretty ill after awhile. She is naturally fair skinned and usually doesn't spend a lot of time out doors, so I imagine that is why she got so sick and no one else did.

When she came down to sit with out she was a bit out of it and seemed like she was going to collapse. We touched her skin and found it ridiculously hot.

Luckily there was a nursing station at the beach we were at so we took her in to get treated. Sunstroke is pretty harsh, so if you go to the beach, make sure you get out of the sun on a regular basis.

By anon35466 — On Jul 05, 2009

how long after being in the sun do symptoms occur?

By anon34095 — On Jun 17, 2009

i have been suffering from sunstroke for over 20 years, when i was a kid i could never sleep because of the body temp.

By anon33097 — On Jun 01, 2009

if kids got sun stroke, do they sleep all the time?

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