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2019.08.13 - Heat stroke and sunstroke - what is the difference?

Heat stroke and sunstroke - what is the difference?

When summer comes, heat comes along. Warm sunny days remind people of the good days. This time of the year everyone goes on a vacation, visits warm places far away all around the world or at least the beach, although this sunny weather has its dangers too. Heat stroke, heat shock and heat exhaustion. They all have the same source, and we need to be conscious about them, especially this time of the year.


The human body keeps its temperature up with a very complicated heat regulator system. There are two ways to cool the body down: the first is by perspiring fluid from the sweat glandules that goes along with significant heat removal and incidentally with salt loss too. The second way is widening the capillaries near the skin that concludes in heat loss through the skin. Both ways use the circulatory system, the heart and the veins to a great extent; this is why these organs can be easily overloaded if it’s too hot outside. Heat stroke is basically the breakdown of these organs.

Why do we get so hot?

It is useful to know what causes our body to get hot. Naturally it is influenced by the temperature of the air, but this is not the only significant factor. Clothing is important too: even if it is not that hot outside according to the thermometer if you stand outside without cover in dark clothes, you can easily get a heat stroke. If you are doing physical work your inner heat production increases, so you need cooling. Other illnesses for example diabetes increase the risk, along with some medications. Wind and humidity play an important role too, since wind always cools but high humidity results in less sweat, thus less cooling. Naturally, staying close to water can help preventing a heat stroke, but only if we go for a quick swim too. If you just watch the water from the shore or just sunbathe, you are in a serious risk.


What happens during a heat stroke?

Heat strokes take some time to form. Plenty of time passes until our body gives up the fight against overheating. Firstly, we sweat a lot which causes losing a lot of liquid and salt. This phase can be extended by replacing these two. This can be done with isotonic drinks, however, drinking coffee and alcohol takes liquid away from the cooling system, thus these are dangerous to consume on hot days. If the fluid balance or the salt balance collapses, we talk about heat exhaustion. It is only one step away from heat stroke. In the first phase of the illness our body can compensate the collapse of the circulatory system to some extent. It causes our skin to flush and get hot. The temperature of the body slowly reaches 40 degrees Celsius.

In the second phase the circulation gets unsettled, which leads to our skin’s purplish colour, and our higher pulse. The long term lack of blood supply can result in the organ’s imperishable damage. Without treatment the body shuts down.

Symptoms and tasks

How can we notice the formation of heat stroke? Besides the symptoms above - sweating, hot dry or purplish skin - headache, dizziness, lack of concentration, nausea, vomiting and even blackout often occur.

If you experience these kinds of symptoms on someone either on the beach or on the street, take them into shadow, make them drink cold tea or water if they are conscious, and then cool their body by loosening their clothes or putting cold water compress on the uncovered body parts. Before all this you should call the ambulance since that person might be in a threat to life situation. 


Heat stroke or sunstroke

These two sicknesses are often used as synonyms, although they are not the same. They come from the same source but while sunstroke means mainly the overheating of the head only, heat stroke means the overheating of the whole body. Our heads are really sensitive to overheating since it has to get rid of too much heat on a small area. If the meninges overheats it can inflammate spontaneously, which makes it swollen and that causes pressure on the brain, which can result in headache, dizziness, sorrow, nausea and fever. Little children are extremely endangered, since their skull is thinner so it heats up faster. Being bald is a risk factor too, as hair offers a little shadow to the head and with hair we can release heat faster, due to the bigger specific surface.

Heat stroke is dangerous too, but it usually fades within 1 or 2 days, we only need to soothe the fever. If the symptoms don’t fade, you should go to the doctor immediately.


It seems logical from what has been said above, but let’s summarise the prevention of heat caused illnesses.

1) Drink a lot of water if you go to the beach, around the city or work outside.

2) Don’t stay outside for too much time. If you need to work outside, schedule it late afternoon or the evening.

3) Wear some kind of hat. Keep your head protected especially during sunbathing. Wear light, loose clothes.

4) Don’t leave the house for too much time and use an air conditioner inside.

5) Go into the water from time to time. Cool down your body somehow.

6) Take care of each other. Elderly people and children are especially in need of help, since it is possible that they misjudge their own heat tolerance.