Help in the heatwave

Summer heatwave weather

St John Ambulance volunteers throughout the country are preparing to treat a rise in heat-related illnesses as the country is gripped by a heatwave -  despite many of them being very easy to prevent.

To help sun lovers enjoy the warmth while staying safe, the nation’s leading first aid charity has issued summer first aid tips.

John Newman, Head of Operations at St John Ambulance, commented: ‘Extreme heat can be dangerous, particularly for the very young and old, but by being prepared you can spot early warning signs of illness or care for someone who needs your help.

Heatstroke and heat exhaustion are the most serious problems to develop in a heatwave so it’s essential that people can spot the signs.

John Newman
St John Ambulance Head of Operations

‘Heatstroke and heat exhaustion are the most serious problems to develop in a heatwave so it’s essential that people can spot the signs. It’s also useful to know how to cope with ailments like cramp, fainting, sunburn and dehydration which can sound minor but are common problems that we treat people for at events, despite many of them being easy to prevent.

‘For the first four days at Wimbledon we treated 629 people for heat-related illnesses and we’re expecting to see a rise as the heatwave develops. We’re happy to care for those who need us but if we’re not around or if you want to prevent summer illnesses it’s useful to know some simple first aid. If you or someone with you is taken ill and you’re concerned, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47 or 999 in an emergency.’

Summer first aid advice

  • Prolonged hot weather and particularly exposure to the sun and lack of fluids can cause your body to dangerously overheat. This gives rise to a range of conditions ranging from uncomfortable dehydration which can rapidly deteriorate to life threatening heatstroke if you don’t recognise and deal with it.
  • Heatstroke. Someone suffering from heatstroke may have skin that is flushed, hot and dry to the touch. Their pulse becomes full and fast and they may have a headache and feel dizzy. As the condition worsens they will become disorientated and confused. It’s important to lower their body temperature as soon as possible and they will need to go to hospital urgently so dial 999 for an ambulance. To treat someone suffering from heatstroke, move them to a cool place and with their permission, remove as much of their outer clothing as possible. Wrap them in a cold, wet sheet or a suitable alternative until their temperature falls. If a sheet isn’t available sponge them with cold water. If their temperature returns to normal replace the sheet with a dry one and make a note of their pulse and breathing until help arrives.
  • Heat exhaustion is very common and is caused by the loss of salt and water from excessive sweating. Common symptoms include headache, dizziness, cramps and breathing that is fast but weak. The person may have a pale face sweat profusely. Take the person into a cool, shady area and make them as comfortable as possible. Get them to lie down with raised legs and provided they are conscious, give them plenty of water. There are some oral rehydration powders that can be added to the water if you have any or isotonic drinks can be used instead. It’s a good idea to keep some with you in this weather.
  • Dehydration happens when the fluid lost from the body – usually through sweat – isn’t replaced. Symptoms are a dry mouth and eyes, headaches, dark urine, dizziness and confusion. Avoid it by drinking water regularly, not just when you feel thirsty. The young and old are at particular risk, so it’s crucial to rehydrate them promptly – and if you’re playing sports or other demanding activities, your fluid needs will be much higher. To treat dehydration, drink plenty of fluids; water is normally suitable but you may prefer to add oral rehydration powder to help replace the salts lost from the body.
  • Fainting can be triggered by heat. If you’re prone to fainting, ensure you eat and drink water regularly and don’t stand up for extended periods during the heatwave. If someone feels faint, advise them to lie down, then raise their legs to improve blood flow to their brain. A faint should only last for a brief period of time as once the person falls to the ground they begin to recover. Make sure they have fresh air, and clear away bystanders if you can. Watch their face for signs of recovery, and as they begin to recover, help them to sit up gradually and encourage them to remain seated until they recover. If they stand up quickly they may collapse again.
  • Sunburn is one of the most common injuries presented to St John Ambulance volunteers. It’s best to protect yourself by wearing sunscreen, protective clothing and staying in the shade, but if it’s happened already there are some easy ways to ease the pain. As soon as you notice, cover yourself up and move out of the sun. Take frequent sips of cold water and dab the burnt skin with a cold damp cloth, or if the area is large, soak in a cool bath for around ten minutes. Calamine or aftersun lotion can make you feel more comfortable. If your skin is blistered or the burning extensive, you should seek medical advice – this is particularly important with children. Otherwise, carry on enjoying yourself but keep out of the sun.
  • You’re more likely to get cramp in the heat as it’s often caused by sweating, dehydration or exercise. The sharp onset of pain makes it alarming, but by stretching and massaging the affected muscles it can quickly be brought under control. If it’s in the foot, stand with your weight in the front of the foot to stretch the muscles. If it’s in the calf, straighten your knee and flex the foot upwards. If it’s in the front of the thigh, raise the leg and bend the knee, and if it’s in the back of the thigh you should straighten the knee. Massage the affected muscles afterwards.