Sunstroke and heat stroke – what’s the difference?


Have you been lying by the lake in the blazing sun without a hat or have you run a lap in the afternoon heat? That could take revenge. What you should know about heat emergencies.

Nuremberg/Cologne – Put on a hat or cap, drink a lot, seek shade, avoid sport in the heat: These are the golden rules for getting through hot days – without sunstroke or even heat stroke.

But what is the difference between heat stroke and sunstroke?

In both cases, high temperatures cause damage. To put it very simply, it can be said: “In the case of sunstroke, “only” the head is affected, i.e. the brain. The rest of the body is fine,” says Frank Erbguth, President of the German Brain Foundation. In the case of heat stroke, however, the entire temperature regulation of the body breaks down. In the worst case, this can end in death.

But that doesn’t mean sunstroke is harmless. According to Erbguth, the transition between it and heat stroke is often fluid.

Good to know: In order to get sunstroke, you have to be exposed to the sun’s rays. According to Prof. Bernd Böttiger from the German Red Cross, you can also get heat stroke “in pitch black” if it is particularly hot there.

What happens in a heat stroke?

Our body temperature is normally around 37 degrees. Heat waves, during which the nights no longer bring any cooling, can put a lot of strain on the body. At a certain point he can no longer cool down by sweating. Especially if you don’t drink enough.

“The body is no longer able to transport the heat away,” explains Frank Erbguth. Heat builds up, the body temperature rises to 40 degrees and higher. This has consequences for various systems in the body. “First of all, the coagulation and blood circulation systems fail,” explains Erbguth.

It is important to know that our blood vessels dilate when it is warm, so that as much overheated blood as possible is transported to the skin, where the heat can be released through sweating. As sweat evaporates from our skin, the skin is cooled – and with it the blood. It can then be cooled down and migrate to other parts of our body.

In the event of heat stroke, however, this system fails. “Then the blood clots. The small clumps clog the small vessels,” explains Erbguth. The kidneys, but also the liver and heart can no longer work well. According to the neurologist, in the worst case there is a risk of multi-organ failure.

By the way: “Damp heat is significantly worse than dry heat,” says Erbguth. When the humidity is comparatively high, our body finds it harder to cool down through sweating.

What symptoms does heat stroke cause?

Signs of heat stroke are sudden tiredness, headaches and a diffuse feeling of dizziness, according to Frank Erbguth. “As it gets worse, nausea and vomiting will accompany it. And then: unconsciousness.” According to Bernd Böttiger, hot and dry skin and an increased heart rate are also warning signs of heat stroke.

A suspected heat stroke is always a case for the emergency call 112. In the time until the medical professionals arrive, you should immediately bring those affected to the shade, advises Böttiger, the federal doctor of the German Red Cross and director of the clinic for anesthesiology and surgery Intensive care medicine at the University Hospital in Cologne.

Then the body has to be cooled down – but better not with pure ice on the bare skin. There is a risk of frostbite here, Erbguth warns. Better: wrap ice cubes and cold packs in a cloth.

If the person is still conscious, offer them something to drink. According to Böttiger, water, but also juice spritzers or fruit teas are good.

Paramedics then give those affected cooling infusions, for example. If the coagulation system is already disturbed, anticoagulant drugs are administered in the hospital.

What happens when you get sunstroke?

“The meninges and the brain warm up,” says neurologist Erbguth. “And just one or two degrees is enough to produce a kind of meningitis. The brain is not the most robust of organs.”

All people who have no, little or particularly thin hair are particularly at risk. This includes the elderly, but also babies and small children. “Infants, for example, only have a thin skullcap,” says Böttiger.

What are the signs of sunstroke?

Sunstroke shows up in part through similar signs to heat stroke: also through headaches and dizziness. But neck pain and stiffness, sensitivity to light and a crimson, hot head can also indicate sunstroke, according to DRK federal doctor Böttiger.

Incidentally, the symptoms can only appear after you have been out of the sun for a few hours. According to Böttiger, it can happen that small children only get a high fever after spending a long time in the sun.

If sunstroke is suspected, those affected should be taken out of the heat and to a cool place. There, the body should be cooled with wet towels, with the upper body being best elevated. And here too: Those affected should drink a lot.

If the condition worsens and you lose consciousness, call 112 for professional help. dpa


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