Hot weather health risks

Britain is not well-known for its long, hot summers and when the sun does emerge from an overcast sky, it can be very tempting to make the most of it.

Woman hot weather drinking water
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However, the sun and hot weather in general brings with it some very specific health problems and it is important to recognise symptoms, take action where necessary and know how to keep yourself and others safe in the sun.

The very young and the elderly are particularly at risk of health problems when the weather turns hot but those with a serious existing condition (such as respiratory or heart disease) and those doing strenuous physical activity.

Since water makes up more than two-thirds of the human body, dehydration can cause serious health problems. When water content is reduced, the balance of minerals in the body (salts and sugars) is upset and if let untreated this can lead to serious problems.

Early signs of dehydration include dizziness, headaches, fatigue, dark urine and, of course, thirst. In severe cases, sunken eyes, a rapid heartbeat, cool hands and feet and an inability to urinate can also occur.

If you have a young baby, look out for a sunken fontanelle (soft spot), few or no tears when they cry, drowsiness, fewer wet nappies and fast breathing.

Happily, dehydration can usually be solved by drinking fluids. In hot weather it is essential to drink plenty of fluids such as water, diluted fruit juice or squash.

Dehydrated infants and young children, whose low body weight makes them especially sensitive to fluid loss, should be not be given water as further dilution may cause more problems - instead diluted squash, fruit juice or a rehydration solution is recommended.

When the body's core temperature rises to 37 to 40ºC, water and salt levels begin to drop. This causes heat exhaustion, resulting in nausea, feeling faint and heavy sweating.

Half an hour in a cool place with plenty of water to drink should solve the problem.

Left untreated, however, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke. Once your body's core temperature rises above 40ºC, cells begin to break down and parts of the body may cease to function.

Symptoms include mental confusion, rapid shallow breathing and eventually, loss of consciousness. Medical attention is required immediately as it can cause serious organ failure or even death.

Treated quickly, 90 per cent survive heatstroke but it is particularly dangerous for vulnerable people such as the elderly.

Prickly heat
Exposure to the hot sun can bring you out in a rash. Prickly heat can affect any part of the body and appears as tiny spots or bumps that can cause mild swelling, itching or a prickly sensation. It usually occurs a few days after exposure to hot temperatures but is not a serious condition.

Usually the rash will disappear after a few days but calamine lotion can help to soothe irritated skin.

If you're not careful, your skin can be damaged by the sun's ultraviolet rays. Burned skin may blister or peel and is painful but mild sunburn usually goes away after four to seven days and calamine lotion will help to ease the symptoms.

Of course, we need not tell you that prolonged or frequent exposure without protection dramatically increases your risk of developing skin cancer so be sure to use a high-factor UV protection sun cream if you are out in the sun, and avoid sunbathing in the hottest part of the day (ie 11am to 3pm).

Though the heat and sun can both pose a health risk, your body will tell you when it has had enough. Be sure to listen to it.