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Understanding the Differences Between Heat Rash, Sunstroke, and Sun Poisoning

Many of us take our workouts outdoors as the summer sun beams down. While the sunshine can boost your mood and vitamin D levels, exercising outdoors during peak heat can expose you to risks like heat rash, sunstroke, and sun poisoning. Understanding these conditions and how to address them is essential for safely enjoying your summer fitness routine.

Heat Rash (Miliaria or Prickly Heat)

Identification: Heat rash occurs when sweat ducts become blocked and swell, leading to small, itchy bumps on the skin. It’s common in hot, humid conditions, especially under tight clothing or in skin folds.

Example: An individual wearing a tight, synthetic shirt on a humid day may develop itchy, red bumps on their back and underarms.

Treatment: The key is to keep the affected area cool and dry. Wear loose, lightweight, breathable clothing that wicks moisture away from the skin. Use fans or air conditioning, and apply cool compresses. Over-the-counter creams can alleviate itching, but avoid creams and ointments that can block pores.

When to Call a Doctor: If the rash doesn’t improve in a few days, becomes increasingly painful, or shows signs of infection (like pus, swelling, or red streaks), seek medical advice.

Heat Rash (Miliaria or Prickly Heat)
Heat Rash (Miliaria or Prickly Heat)


Sun Poisoning (Severe Sunburn)

Identification: Sun poisoning refers to a severe skin reaction to prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. Symptoms can include blistering, severe redness, pain and tingling, swelling, headache, fever, chills, nausea, dizziness, and dehydration.

Examples: After a long day at the beach without sunscreen, an individual may experience intense skin redness, blistering, fever, and headache, suggesting sun poisoning.

Treatment: Get out of the sun immediately and stay indoors. Take a cool (but not cold) shower or bath. Drink extra water or sports drinks for a few days. Apply cool compresses, and take anti-inflammatory medications for pain and swelling. Use aloe vera or moisturizers to soothe the skin. Keep sunburned areas covered when going back outside.

When to Call a Doctor: If you experience severe blistering, a sunburn that covers a large area, fever or chills, confusion, or facial swelling. Having a headache, an upset stomach, faintness, or signs of dehydration are additional signs you should seek medical attention.

Sun Poisoning (Severe Sunburn)
Sun Poisoning (Severe Sunburn)


Sunstroke (Heat Stroke)

Identification: Sunstroke is a severe heat illness resulting from the body’s inability to cool down, leading to a rapid increase in body temperature, usually in combination with dehydration. Medically, you’re diagnosed with heat stroke if your core body temperature is greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, with complications involving the central nervous system that occur after exposure to high temperatures.

Signs of sunstroke include throbbing headache, dizziness and lightheadedness. The skin may be red, hot and dry. There may be a lack of sweating despite the heat. A rapid heartbeat, rapid shallow breathing, nausea, confusion, disorientation, staggering, and sometimes loss of consciousness, seizures or coma are all common symptoms.

Examples: An individual exercising vigorously in the sun without adequate hydration may experience fainting, confusion, and a high body temperature, which are indicative of sunstroke.

Treatment: This is a medical emergency. Move the person to a shaded or air-conditioned area, remove excess clothing, and cool them with wet clothes or a cool bath. Do not give fluids if the person is unconscious or semi-conscious. Call emergency services immediately.

When to Call a Doctor: Immediate medical attention is crucial for sunstroke. Delayed treatment can lead to serious complications or death.

These are the key differences between these conditions.

First, the location and cause. Heat rash is due to blocked sweat ducts, usually in covered areas. Sunstroke results from the body overheating and is not directly related to sunburn but to the body’s thermal regulation. Sun poisoning is specifically caused by UV radiation damage.

Second are the symptoms. Heat rash is characterized by skin irritation, while sunstroke affects the body’s core temperature and neurological functions. Sun poisoning primarily manifests with severe skin symptoms but can include systemic effects.

The third difference is the treatment. Heat rash and sun poisoning can often be treated with self-care measures, though medical advice is recommended if symptoms worsen. Sunstroke is a medical emergency requiring immediate attention.

Always err on the side of caution and consult a healthcare provider when any symptoms are severe or do not improve with initial treatment.

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3/22/2024