Although summers in the United Kingdom are usually quite mild by global standards (with average highs of 23° in London in July), British weather is very changeable and unpredictable and, thanks to climate change, periods of unusually high temperatures are becoming more common. In July 2018, many parts of the UK saw temperatures exceed 30 degrees for over 15 days in a row. Research in 2017 concluded that heat-related deaths had increased by a frightening 2700% worldwide in a decade.

When temperatures are high, people are more likely to suffer from heat exhaustion and, in serious cases, heat stroke; especially if they’re exercising or playing sports. This is a particular risk for endurance athletes who are training or competing during the summer, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be hotter than average outside for this to happen. If heat exhaustion isn’t treated, it can quickly become heatstroke, which can lead to seizures and loss of consciousness and constitutes a medical emergency.

What are the signs of heat exhaustion?

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
  • Confusion and dizziness
  • Fast breathing
  • Quick pulse
  • High temperature (38°C or higher)
  • Extreme thirst
  • Headache
  • Copious sweating and clammy, pale skin
  • Cramps in the stomach, arms and legs
  • Nausea and loss of appetite
In addition to the symptoms already mentioned, children may become sleepy

It’s important that someone exhibiting these symptoms stops any physical activity, moves out of direct sunlight and takes measure to cool down.

How do you treat heat exhaustion?

Your priority is to cool the person down before their condition worsens. Here are 4 simple steps to treat heat exhaustion:

1. Move them to a cool place (e.g. into shade, an air-conditioned room, etc.)
2. Lie them down and raise their feet slightly
3. Ensure they drink lots of water. Sport drinks are also OK
4. Cool their skin. You can sponge or spray them with cool water, use a fan, and you can also apply cold packs to their neck or armpits. For outdoor situations, instant cold packs can be very useful

Stay with them until they start to feel better. This should happen within 30 minutes. If it doesn’t, you should call for emergency services.

What are the signs of heat stroke?

If someone’s temperature has risen to 40°C or higher, they will begin to exhibit signs of heat stroke. Heat stroke is a serious illness that requires emergency treatment.

Symptoms of heat stroke include:
  • Confusion
  • Not sweating even when very hot
  • Rapid breathing or shortness of breath
  • Feeling hot and dry
  • Confusion
  • Suffering a seizure
  • Loss of consciousness – casualty becomes unresponsive
Especially if heat stroke is induced via physical exertion, the casualty may still be covered in sweat, so bear this in mind when considering their symptoms.

What should you do to treat heat stroke?

Call emergency services and attempt to comfort and cool down the casualty until help arrives. If they appear to become unresponsive, check their responsiveness by asking them to open their eyes and shake their shoulders. If they’re still unresponsive, check their airway and breathing. If they are breathing, place them in the recovery position. If they are not breathing, you must start CPR.

Preventing heat exhaustion

It’s better to avoid heat exhaustion altogether than have to treat it. You should take care in hot weather, particularly when exercising, and take measures to cool down if you start to feel ill – don’t ignore the symptoms and try and ‘power through’ it.

Measures to help prevent heat exhaustion include:
  • Drinking plenty of cold fluids, especially while exercising
  • Taking cool showers or baths
  • Avoiding the sun during the hottest time of the day (11am – 3pm)
  • Sprinkling water over the skin or clothing
  • Wearing loose fitting, light-coloured clothing
  • Avoiding excess alcohol
  • Avoiding extreme exercise, especially at midday or during periods of above-average temperatures
It’s important to be aware that children, the elderly and those with health conditions like diabetes are more susceptible to heat exhaustion and heat stroke – during hot, humid weather, infants and the elderly can suffer heat illness even when at rest.

About the author:

Dennis Outram is a senior first aid trainer and a Serving Brother in the Order of St John.
Find out more about Dennis.