Donders Wonders

The dangers of the sun are underestimated. Image by Pexels.

Heat Stroke: An attack on your brain

This post is also available in Dutch.

The summer is already booked with vacations in the sun, but a heat stroke is lurking. So what are the dangers? And is that fancy hat enough to protect you?

The dangers of the sun are underestimated. Image by Pexels.

Flights that are fully booked, are making their way back again towards the sun and the beach. However, many people on vacation only apply a moderate amount of sunscreen, so that they might go from tan to tanner. They risk the consequences that follow a sunburn: being as red as a lobster, pain, blisters and peeling. Next to underestimating the dangers of a sunburn, the sun can also give you a heat stroke. Oh, just some fever-like symptoms that disappear in no time, right? But heat stroke isn’t as harmless as we think.

Your Thermometer
Our bodily processes work optimally when our body temperature is between 36.5 °C and 37.5 °C. The brainstem therefore works as a kind of thermostat that ensures our body temperature stays between those degrees. It’s therefore necessary that our body releases as much warmth as it produces. In the summer heat, you cool off for example by sweating, so whenever you don’t drink enough, you actually dry yourself out. Your brainstem becomes confused: “Do I need to sweat more to cool off or do I need to sweat less to keep myself hydrated?”.
Your deregulated thermostat can bring about a heat stroke, where your body temperature rises above the normal limit. Usually this begins with a headache, exhaustion, nausea and dizziness. You can recover from a mild heat stroke in just a few days, provided you do something about it!

A Serious Heat Stroke: Brain Damage
Not only can the sun lead to a heat stroke. Combinations of heat, overactivity and dehydration can make a mild heat stroke into something serious. Your heartbeat and your breathe will quicken and your body temperature can increase to as high as 42 °C: This can be deadly!
When it comes to a serious heat stroke, the proteins in your brain cannot withstand these high temperatures. They break down and cannot be rebuilt. This results in permanent brain damage, where holes appear in the white matter of your brain. The image below shows the holes that appear inside a brain overcome with heat stroke (right brain, red circle). Compare this brain with the brain that is not affected by heat stroke (left brain, green circle). It looks like goat cheese! A serious heat stroke can be deadly. Therefore, you should let your doctor determine your condition.

Brain slices taken from people without heat stroke (left) and with extreme, deadly heat stroke (right). These slices are exhibited in the Museum of Anatomy and Pathology. The beauty of what lies underneath our skin can be admired here. © / Frank Muller

Do’s & Don’ts to stay cool
It’s all quite logical: to avoid and to treat a heat stroke one must stay ‘cool’. First, you will need to find a place with a sufficient amount of shade. As soon as you step off the plane, you should already begin preparing. More tips:
Do you want to explore your vacation destination with an active bike ride? Watch out: Your muscles produce extra warmth when they’re exerted! Limit your activity and take breaks laying horizontally underneath the palm trees.
Dehydration also contributes to a rising body temperature. So, do you feel like drinking a beer? No, alcohol only dries you out more! Isotone sport drinks help the best, but the body is already happy with water. Eventually add some salt, or grab a hand full of salted peanuts. You also lose a lot of salt when you sweat!

In short: get out of the sun, limit over activity, drink enough water, and if need be take a cold shower!

Have a great heat-stroke-free vacation!


This blog was written by Ralf Weijs.
Editing and translation: Marpessa.

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