First aid

Updated 19 November 2014

Take care not to overheat

It is not for nothing that our country is known abroad as "Sunny South Africa" and most of us here take full advantage of our wonderful warm climate.


Summer in South Africa is a time for fun in the sun and the great outdoors. It is not for nothing that our country is known abroad as "Sunny South Africa" and most of us here take full advantage of our wonderful warm climate.

A warm environment can unfortunately also pose a danger to our human bodies. "We attend to quite a large number of hyperthermia and even heatstroke cases in the summer months," notes Peter Feurstein, Operations Director Netcare 911. "Some people go for walks in the hot sun and underestimate how far they need to hike. They may also fail to take sufficient liquids with them. Others undertake vigorous exercise in the heat without staying properly hydrated. Such circumstances can result in heatstroke, which can be extremely dangerous."

Feurstein explains that heatstroke occurs when the human body's core temperature increases beyond 40 degrees Celsius. It can be fatal if not treated properly and promptly, he warns. Heatstroke can cause an individual to slip into a coma and suffer organ failure.

The body generates heat but is usually able to dissipate this by radiation via the skin or through the evaporation of sweat on the skin. Feurstein notes that in extremely hot or humid environments and in cases where people overexert themselves, the body may not be able to dissipate the heat fast enough and an individual may suffer hyperthermia. Dehydration may be another cause of hyperthermia.

"Heatstroke is a form of hyperthermia, which is simply an abnormally elevated body temperature," he points out. "Another form of hyperthermia is heat exhaustion, which is less serious than heatstroke. Often an individual will suffer from heat exhaustion first and then progress on to heatstroke if a way is not found to bring his or her body temperature down. On the other hand, some individuals may develop heatstroke rapidly and without warning."

Athletes, the young, the elderly, those taking certain medications and outdoor workers may be particularly at risk of developing heatstroke, he observes. It can also be a threat to those undertaking vigorous work in warm indoor environments without the appropriate protective clothing.

The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include: nausea; headache, vomiting, fatigue, muscle cramps and aches and dizziness. The symptoms of heatstroke may differ from person to person and depend upon what has caused it, but they may include those for heat exhaustion as well as the following: high body temperature; dry flushed skin with an absence of sweating; rapid pulse; trouble breathing; bewilderment and confusion; unusual and sometimes aggressive behaviour, seizure and coma.

How do you treat heatstroke?

Dr Anchen Laubscher, Medical Director Netcare 911, says it is vital to work towards bringing the patient’s body temperature down to ensure that they do not suffer organ damage.

First move the individual out of the sun and into the shade. You can remove their clothing and place them into a bathtub filled with cool or tepid water if they are conscious. Do not use very cold water as it can prevent heat escaping the body core. Be sure to keep a close eye on them if you use a bath, however, making sure they do not lose consciousness.

Alternatively the patient may be hosed with cool water from a garden hose or wiped down using a cool, wet cloth. They may be fanned to encourage evaporation on and cooling of the skin. It is also vital to hydrate the victim using drinking water or, even better, isotonic drinks containing electrolytes. If they cannot take any liquids orally, intravenous hydration by means of a drip is necessary. Commence with CPR should the victim suffer heart failure.

If you suspect that someone may be suffering from heatstroke call a medical emergency service such as Netcare 911 immediately. Netcare 911's 24-hour emergency number is 082 911.

Keep in mind a few things and you should not have trouble with hyperthermia in the first place. Netcare 911 gives the following tips for avoiding it: 

  • Do not do any strenuous physical activity in the heat of the day or in hot, humid conditions.
  • If you cannot avoid strenuous activity at least make sure that you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids such as water and sports drinks.
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats and light, loose clothes.
  • Avoid drinks that may dehydrate you further such as alcohol, fizzy colas, tea and coffee.

"Plan your activities with care and pay the sun its due respect and you should have a festive season free from problems related to hyperthermia," concludes Feurstein. - (Health24, December 2010)

Issued by : Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare 911


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