People are often unaware how vulnerable they are in harsh weather conditions. In addition, it’s surprising for most people how little it takes to consider an environmental condition dangerous.
On a hot summer day, the air conditioning is off, and you are stuck in uninsulated glass panoramic elevator, while the sun burns through the glass. One hour- that’s how long it can take before the first symptoms of heat exhaustion kick in.
Just a quick nap at the beach can turn into an epic skin burn with long-term health effects.
Traffic jam at the highway on a hot summer day is all it takes to suffer a severe dehydration and heat exhaustion. It doesn’t have to be hot at all! If the car conditioning system is broken, the car will heat in no time.
This article is a practical guide for emergency situations- not just a theoretical discussion about the conditions due to excessive exposure to sunlight and heat. After reading it, you will learn the skill of handling extreme sun exposure.
Car wheel change in desert by Bob Rayner | Creative Commons 2
Sunburn, sun poisoning, sun rash, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion develop often at the same time and as a result of extreme exposure to the sunlight. Differing between them is not that important for a layman, but knowing how to protect and start a basic treatment is what makes a difference between life and death.
The UV light
Roughly 10% of the sunlight output is UV light. UV light kills bacteria- this is the reason why people report their skin “cleaned up“ of pimples during summer. It’s like a natural antibiotic. The bactericidal effect UV lamp is used in hospitals for air sterilization. In nature, by stimulating skin cells to produce melanin, it helps us get a tan.
However, excessive exposure to the UV light can cause a condition we all know as a sunburn. Interesting fact: Sunburns are not heat injuries! They just look alike. Sunburn occurs because of the inflammatory response after the UV light kills skin cells (just like it kills bacteria, it can kill our skin cells).
UV light is not hot! That is why people get a nasty sunburn after staying in tanning beds for long. You can get a severe sunburn while freezing during the skiing adventure! Big water surfaces such as ocean, sea, or snow (a crystalized water), reflect sunlight very well, increasing the amount of UV light drastically.
The sunlight is hot because of infrared light contained in it. All health issues caused by heat, are actually, caused by infrared light.
The UV and infrared light are not detectable by human eye.
To make the decision-making process easier for you, I decided to divide symptoms into levels depending on their severity. Also, each level has “skin“ and “body response“ category.
The skin is red and tender- sometimes even clothes touching the skin cause discomfort. Symptoms develop few hours after exposure.
Sweating, thirst, dry mouth, and the sense of heat may be apparent. The person feels ok.
In addition to level 1 symptoms, small blisters can pop up throughout the surface of the skin. The level 1 symptoms may intensify, pain and burning is severe.
As the level 1 symptoms intensify, headache, confusion, tiredness, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and muscle cramps may occur.
Level 3 IMMEDIATE HELP REQUIRED
In addition to level 2 symptoms, blisters become bigger, tight, full of clear-yellowish fluid. The pain and burning are extreme.
The person affected does not sweat anymore. Muscle cramps, thirst, and dry mouth intensify. Confusion becomes obvious (disorientation and loss of touch with reality), even hallucinations may appear. Loss of consciences and seizures possible.
Heavy blistering and severe changes of mental status precede serious, even life-threatening conditions. After noticing these, do all you can to get professional medical help as soon as possible.
Preventing the Sun injuries
Skin damage prevention
- Use the sunscreen and sunblock creams to avoid sunburn.
- Light fabric shirt is often not enough to protect the skin against high-intensity UV light. Get the beach or hiking shirt made of “thick“ fabric.
- Check the UV index forecast for the area you are in and take safety measures accordingly. United States
- Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) developed UV Index Scale, which is designed to help you avoid harmful effects of UV radiation.
- Avoid direct exposure to the sunlight.
Body damage prevention
- During summer, keep a gallon of water in a car trunk. Make sure to have a water supply for at least one full day if you are traveling longer distances on your own. Avoid drinking freezing water (a few degrees cooler than a room temperature is cool enough).
- Kids and pets are particularly sensitive to extreme temperatures. DO NOT, not even for a few minutes leave them alone in a sealed car! If you have to go out for a few minutes, make sure that at least two windows are an inch or two opened.
- If available, take a tissue soak it with alcohol and wipe exposed skin with it (while evaporating, alcohol cools down the body). Having a dozen of wet alcohol wipes in the handbag during summer is a good idea. DO NOT use alcohol in the area of the open wounds and blisters!!!
- If it’s possible, slowly dump the body in cold water occasionally (sea, ocean, river, pond, stream, etc.) DO NOT jump into the cold water, in sometimes this leads to a CARDIAC ARREST (yup, instant death!).
- Find a shade in an open space and hide in there if needed (under the tree, or in the shadow of a building or some other object). Closed space can heat up surprisingly fast to a dangerous level (sealed car, for example).
- If you get stuck in the car, as long as the conditioning system works, keep the windows closed, but if it stops working, as soon as the car starts to heat up, open the windows and sit in the shade.
For the level 1 and 2 symptoms cooling the skin brings relief. Do not rub it with a towel- if you need to dry it, just pat dry. Use moisturizing creams (apply those and as soon as the skin soaks it up, apply more).
For the level 3 damage professional medical help is necessary. If not available, keep it as clean as possible with a mild soap and water. Do not rub or peel the blisters. Get the professional medical help as soon as possible.
Move to the shade and stay in there until the health condition normalizes.
If possible: prepare the ORT solution (commercially available or DIY version). Here, you can read more about preparation and use Oral Rehydration Therapy.
Move the affected person into the shade, take clothing off and rub the body (particularly neck) gently with a cloth soaked with cool water (not freezing!). If the person is conscious, give him or her cool water/ORT solution. A banana or tomato juice is rich in potassium and should relieve the muscle cramps (if present). As the body temperature drops, symptoms will subside.
In case of a level 3 body response symptoms, urgent transportation to the nearest health facility is necessary.
Keep in mind:
Because of the body volume/surface ratio, kids are particularly sensitive to temperature changes. If you have a toddler in the car while driving long distances during summer, make sure to have at least one gallon of water, a few bananas, a dozen of alcohol wipes and high SPF cream with you! Do not, under any circumstances leave a kid in a sealed car during summer, not even for a couple of minutes!