Home Diseases Sunstroke: causes, warning signs, diagnosis, treatment

Sunstroke: causes, warning signs, diagnosis, treatment

by Josephine Andrews
Published: Last Updated on 315 views

Sunstroke (medical: isolation , heliosis) is caused by intense sunlight on the head – the resulting accumulation of heat in the head irritates the meninges As a result, symptoms such as headaches, nausea and vomiting, possibly also fever and impaired consciousness, typically occur a few hours later. Sunstroke often occurs in children and soon men. Read more here: What to do against sunstroke? Are there any effective home remedies? When do you have to go to the doctor?

ICD codes for this disease:

ICD codes are internationally valid codes for medical diagnoses. They can be found, for example, in doctor’s letters or on certificates of incapacity for work.


Sunstroke: Brief overview

  • What to do with sunstroke? Put the affected person in the shade, raise the upper body/head, give something to drink, cool the head, calm down
  • Risks of sunstroke : Severe sunstroke can cause the brain to swell (cerebral edema), in extreme cases with fatal consequences.
  • When to the doctor? If there are signs of severe sunstroke or cerebral edema (deterioration of condition, impaired consciousness, seizures, etc.)


  • Symptoms of sunstroke usually only appear after the person has been out of the sun for a long time.
  • In particular, do not leave children with sunstroke alone.
  • Painkillers such as diclofenac or ibuprofen should only be taken after consulting a doctor.
  • Call 911 if the victim loses consciousness or has a seizure.

Sunstroke: Symptoms

Sunstroke can result if the head or neck gets too much sun. Triggers are the long-wave heat rays (infrared rays) in sunlight. They can locally overheat the head, irritating the meninges and, in severe cases, affecting the brain itself. You can read how to recognize sunstroke in the article Sunstroke – Symptoms .

Sunstroke: what to do?

If you have sunstroke, there are things you can do yourself. It depends, among other things, on its severity, which helps with sunstroke. The following first aid measures are correct and important:

  • Shade : Move the victim to a cool, shaded area, preferably a cool, darkened room.
  • Proper Positioning : Position the casualty on their back, with their head and torso slightly elevated to relieve head and neck strain. For example, put a pillow underneath. Bed rest is advisable.
  • Cold compresses : These should be used to cool the head and neck, and possibly the torso, of the victim. You can also use ice cubes or “cool packs” or “ice packs”, but never put them directly on the skin , but always with a layer of fabric in between (risk of frostbite!).
  • Calm down : Children with sunstroke in particular should be calmed down and not left alone until the unpleasant symptoms subside.
  • Drink a lot : Make sure that the affected person drinks enough liquid (but not ice cold!) unless the consciousness is impaired.
  • Emergency call : Call emergency services if the patient loses consciousness, does not improve quickly, or even noticeably worsens.

Painkillers such as ibuprofen or diclofenac should only be given as first aid for sunstroke after consulting a doctor. In the case of a very severe sunstroke or heat stroke , these medications must not be used – call the emergency doctor immediately!

Sunstroke: home remedies

In addition to the measures mentioned above, some home remedies can also help with mild sunstroke. For example, you can make poultices with cold quark or yoghurt for the head and neck of the person concerned. This not only cools, but can also soothe sun-reddened skin.

If being in the sun was associated with heavy sweating, the person concerned may have lost a lot of minerals . Then you can stir a teaspoon of salt into a cup of chilled tea or a glass of water and let the person drink it. If necessary, an electrolyte solution from the pharmacy can also be useful to compensate for the loss of salt through heavy sweating (or vomiting).

Home remedies have their limits. If the symptoms persist over a longer period of time, do not get better or even get worse, you should always consult a doctor.

Sunstroke: Homeopathy

Some people rely on the support of homeopathy for various complaints. For example, the homeopathic remedies Natrum carbonicum, Belladonna and Glonoinum are said to be helpful for sunstroke.

The concept of homeopathy and its specific effectiveness are controversial in science and not clearly proven by studies.

Sunstroke: Risks

Typical signs of sunstroke are symptoms such as a crimson, hot head, headache , dizziness and exhaustion. Nausea, vomiting and a slight fever are also possible.

With severe sunstroke, the irritation and inflammation of the meninges can cause the patient to feel pain in the head and neck when they bend their head forward. In addition, the neck muscles tense up, which makes bending even more difficult (stiff neck). Doctors call these symptoms “ meningism ”.

In the case of sunstroke, however, the circulation is usually not affected. This is why there is only very rarely a risk of death, for example when a so-called cerebral edema develops as a complication of severe sunstroke. This refers to an accumulation of fluid in the brain tissue: The inflammatory processes during sunstroke make the blood vessel walls more permeable, so that more fluid escapes into the tissue – the brain swells and presses against the skull wall, which, however, cannot escape . The more pronounced the brain swelling, the higher the pressure inside the skull. This can damage sensitive brain cells. In addition, the finest blood vessels are compressed by the high pressure, which reduces the supply to the nerve cells.

In addition to headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness, an increase in intracranial pressure can trigger the following symptoms, among others:

  • epileptic seizures
  • Loss of consciousness (such as confusion, drowsiness and even coma )
  • Decreased breathing up to respiratory arrest (respiratory depression)

Sunstroke signs in young children

Babies and small children are particularly prone to sunstroke because of their thinner head hair and thinner skull bones. The typical signs of sunstroke are usually more difficult to recognize in small children who cannot yet speak. Parents should therefore be alert if their offspring behaves unusually after being in the sun. In infants, this includes, for example, high-pitched screams or refusal to eat. In addition, parents can feel with the back of their hands whether the child’s head is overheated.

Sunstroke: when to see the doctor?

Whether a doctor should be consulted depends on how severe the sunstroke is and how the patient’s condition is developing. The symptoms usually subside within hours to a maximum of two days. Adults often recover faster than children.

However, if the patient’s condition does not improve or even worsens to the point of unconsciousness, you should take the patient to a doctor or call an ambulance immediately!

Sunstroke: examinations by the doctor

If sunstroke is suspected, the doctor will first collect the medical history (anamnesis). This means: He asks the patient or the parents (in the case of affected children) various questions that are important for the diagnosis. Examples:

  • How long have you/your child been in the sun?
  • What complaints did you experience?
  • When exactly did the complaints appear?
  • Have you/your child noticed disturbances of consciousness such as confusion?
  • Are there any previous illnesses known?

Physical exams

In the next step, the doctor measures the patient’s body temperature, blood pressure and heart rate. In the case of sunstroke, all three parameters are usually normal. The skin temperature on the head or forehead is also significant. It is often increased with sunstroke. The scalp may also be visibly red.

The doctor also checks whether the meninges are irritated. An indication of this is painfully tight neck muscles that make it difficult or impossible for the patient to lower the chin to the breastbone ( meningism ). Another indication is the so-called Brudzinski sign . The doctor lifts the head of the supine patient strongly in the direction of the chest. In the case of meningeal irritation, the patient reflexively pulls the legs up to reduce the tension on the spinal cord membranes.

In addition, the doctor will use simple questions to check the patient’s orientation to time and place, as well as test the brainstem reflexes (eg, pupillary reflex).

Further examinations are usually not necessary for sunstroke. Additional examinations only make sense if the patient’s circulation is unstable or if the doctor suspects increased intracranial pressure.

Investigations into suspected cerebral edema

If increased intracranial pressure is suspected due to cerebral edema, imaging methods such as computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (magnetic resonance imaging, MRI) can bring clarity.

If no signs of increased intracranial pressure can be found in these examinations, the cerebrospinal fluid ( liquor ) is examined. If the cause of the symptoms is bacterial or viral, typical traces can be found in the liquor, but the findings are normal in the case of sunstroke. A sample of the cerebrospinal fluid is obtained by means of a cerebrospinal fluid puncture.

exclusion of other causes

During his examinations, the doctor must take into account that symptoms such as those that occur with sunstroke can also occur with other diseases. These include:

  • Heat collapse and heat stroke: These two clinical pictures are similar to severe sunstroke. The distinction is very important, however, since heat exhaustion and heat stroke require different treatment.
  • Neuroborreliosis and TBE : Both infections are transmitted by ticks. They can cause, among other things, sunstroke-like symptoms such as reddening of the skin (Lyme disease), fever, weakness and malaise.
  • Meningitis: Sunstroke is often accompanied by mild inflammation of the meninges. Then symptoms similar to bacterial or viral meningitis can occur. In contrast to sunstroke, bacterial meningitis is typically associated with a high fever.
  • Stroke: It occurs when the blood supply to parts of the brain is severely cut off (eg by a clot). Possible signs are, for example, severe headaches, drowsiness and dizziness – symptoms that can also occur with sunstroke.

Sunstroke: Treatment by the doctor

Treatment for sunstroke depends on its severity. As a rule, sunstroke can be treated well by yourself (bed rest in a cool, darkened room, drinking a lot, etc.). In severe cases (eg impaired consciousness) treatment in the hospital is necessary, possibly even in the intensive care unit.

For example, the doctor can give the patient infusions to stabilize the circulation. Certain medications, among other things, help with increased intracranial pressure. Epileptic seizures, which can occur as part of severe sunstroke, can also be treated with medication.

prevent sunstroke

Sunstroke naturally occurs much more frequently in summer when people spend a lot of time outdoors – be it sunbathing, exercising, hiking in the mountains or driving a convertible. People who have little or no protective hair on their heads are particularly at risk. These are mainly infants and small children, but also soon people. These risk groups in particular should therefore not stay in the blazing sun for too long . This applies above all during the sunniest time of the day, which means avoiding the midday sun . In the English-speaking world there is a simple mnemonic: “Between eleven and three, stay under a tree”.

If a (longer) stay in the sun cannot be avoided, you should at least wear a hat . Sunscreen (eg for babies or soon people) is ineffective as head protection. It only keeps out some of the ultraviolet rays, but not the heat rays (infrared rays) that cause sunstroke. Only headgear such as a scarf, hat or cap can help against this.

Headgear that does not let the sun’s rays penetrate the skull at all and thus prevent overheating is particularly recommended. This is mainly light-colored headgear: it reflects most of the sunlight. This means that the head underneath cannot heat up as much as, for example, under black textiles. This is an effective way to prevent sunstroke.

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