Most travellers enjoy the sun and the heat on their gap years – and they should – but too much sun and heat do have health risks that need to be carefully managed. It is important that all travellers understand the risks of being in the sun, hydrate well, stay cool and take the right sun care precautions before the sun and the heat have a negative impact on their health.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying hot, tropical envioronments when you travel, or getting out there and enjoying the sun. In fact it is a good, healthy thing to do, both physically and mentally. But travellers should also be aware of and negate the potential risks of being out in the sun and the heat too.
Hot, sunny and tropical climates may expose travellers to a rapid change in temperature and/or humidity which can have an adverse effect on their health. Heat disorders may be minor such as rashes (prickly heat), fainting, swelling of hands, feet or legs and muscles cramps. Major disorders include heat exhaustion, heat stroke and dehydration and low sodium in the blood as a result of over exertion or exercise.
When you are travelling it is so easy to forget about the strength of the sun, or to become dehydrated because you are running around having the time of your life. I’m a qualified nurse and an experienced traveller, and it has even happened to me!
I got a hell of a sunburn and was hit by heat exhaustion pretty badly in Aruba because I just completely underestimated the strength of the sun there and forgot to wear a hat during a bike tour of the island. Plus thinking I was 20 years younger and cycling around the island without drinking enough water often enough didn’t help either!
And the worst sunburn I ever had I got when snorkelling in Thailand, when the suncream I applied wasn’t as waterproof as I assumed (and yes, okay I lost track of time in the water too!) But that led to a few agonising days of doing nothing and having to let my back heal! (Thank God for aloe vera!)
My point is, it is so easy to underestimate the sun and the climate when you are travelling and this can happen to anyone!
So why should you be concerned about the sun and the heat?
It should be obvious really but just in case it isn’t, exposure to the sun can damage unprotected skin, which can be healed in the short term but can increase risk of various diseases including cancer later in life, and high temperatures can result in loss of fluids and dehydration which can have a negative impact on your health in the long term, and if severe, may contribute to heat exhaustion and/or heatstroke. Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are related conditions that can have serious negative health effects if not treated promptly.
Sunburn is basically damaged skin after ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure.
When the skin is exposed to the sun and UV rays without any protection, it can get damaged. When the UV exposure is heavy your skin will go red and tender, and with continued exposure will burn and your skin cells will become damaged. You are essentially cooking yourself.
Because this damage destroys a lot of the elastic and collagen tissue in the skin, it will lead to premature aging, heavier wrinkles when you are older, and fine and coarse wrinkles. More importantly it can also decrease the skins immune functions which can lead to pre cancerous skin lesions (such as actinic keratosis) and cancerous lesions (such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma).
Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke.
Although these conditions are similar they are two very different things. Heat exhaustion is usually temporary and you can recover from it quite quickly. When it becomes heatstroke, it is potentially very serious, can even be fatal and should be treated as a medical emergency.
Heat exhaustion usually happens when you have spent too long in the sun, especially in tropical weather or during a heatwave, and can often happen alongside getting a sunburn. The signs of heat exhaustion include some or all of the following symptoms:
- Confusion or disorientation.
- Excessive thirst.
- Excessive sweating.
- Muscle cramps from dehydration.
- Loss of appetite, sometimes nausea.
- High temperature (38C or above).
- Raised pulse (resting heart rate of above 100bpm).
These are all signs of heat exhaustion, although not all of them may present themselves depending on the individual, the strength of the sun and temperature and the level of exhaustion.
If you or anyone you are travelling with experiences any of these symptoms then you should cool yourself down, stay out of the sun and in the shade or an air con room if possible and re hydrate as much as possible. If you do this then you will feel pretty awful for a few hours, or possibly until you have had a good sleep, but you should recover relatively quickly.
If heat exhaustion isn’t dealt with however and is allowed to persist without intervention, or the exposure to sun and heat is extreme, then you can get heatstroke, which is considered a medical emergency and obviously much more serious than heat exhaustion.
Heatstroke happens when the body’s ability to regulate its own temperature fails, and the internal core temperature of the body rises to dangerous levels. After the initial symptoms of heat exhaustion (above), someone suffering from heatstroke may:
- Have a persistent temperature of 40C or above.
- Feel hot to the touch and dry.
- There will be no sweat.
- Be confused and/or extremely restless.
- Have a heavy, pounding pulse above 100 BPM.
Heatstroke can come on very fast and to those who aren’t aware of the signs of heat exhaustion may appear like it has come out of nowhere.
There is a possibility of the individual having a fit or seizure, or more likely losing consciousness and becoming unresponsive. It is treated as a medical emergency because it is at this point that it can be fatal.
It is essential that they are cooled down and medical intervention is sought as soon as possible.
How to protect yourself from the sun and the heat.
Protecting yourself from the sun and heat when you are travelling is essential. It may seem boring, I know you will be excited to get out there and enjoy yourself, but taking some simple steps to look after yourself will mean that you can get out and enjoy the sun and the weather safely.
Wearing suitable clothing is essential in the hot weather. Long sleeved T Shirts that are made from light, loose cotton, wearing a sun hat or scarf that protects your head and neck, even sunglasses, they are all essential to protect yourself from getting sunburned. In hot, desert climates I also always carry a shemagh with me too, this is essentially a big piece of cloth that can easily be tied around your head and neck in the sun.
This really should go without saying, but when you are in the sun, you need to wear sunscreen!
You need to make sure the sunscreen blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB), so read the label carefully, and should have a sun protection factor (SPF) of bare minimum 30 with a 4 star UVA protection, but the higher the better.
You should also make sure that you apply the suncream carefully across all exposed skin, including the back of your neck, face and ears (and yes I am bad at missing spots on my face and neck so have to force myself to be extra vigilant when applying it).
It is recommended that you apply two layers. One layer at least 30 minute to an hour before you go out into the sun to allow time for it to thoroughly soak in, and then just before you go out as well. You will also need to reapply it regularly throughout the day, especially if you sweat a lot or go swimming. The lower the SPF factor the more often you will have to reapply it.
It is always wise if you can to seek some shade or head indoors for at least part of the hottest part of the day, between 1200 hours and 1400 hours. This is when the sun is at is most fierce and you are most likely to get burned.
If you can’t, if you are out on a trek or enjoying yourself then that is fine, but just be even more cautious with the sun protection during this time.
It is essential that you stay as hydrated as you can throughout the day, as dehydration is a very real and potentially very serious problem, and is one of the biggest risk factors in heat exhaustion and sunstroke, not to mention a whole host of other problems.
The official advice on hydration from the NHS standard Eat Well Guide is to drink on average 6 to 8 glasses of water per day, but in warmer or tropical climates it is suggested that you at least double that, especially if you are doing a lot of strenuous activity such as mountain hiking, trekking or adventure sports, but there is no specific guideline as everyone is individual. A good rule of thumb to check if you are becoming dehydrated is:
- Check your urine, it should be a clear straw colour. If it is yellow, dark yellow or even brown, and has a strong smell to it, you need to drink a lot more.
- If you are urinating less than 4 times a day.
- If you feel thirsty or have a dry throat.
- If you get a headache or start feeling dizzy.
And remember that hydration doesn’t just mean water, it can be any fluid such as juice or tea. Just remember that many drinks such as fizzy drinks can also have other things such as sugar and caffeine added which can have a negative effect on you.
It is always a really good idea to carry a refillable water bottle on your travels too, this way you can not only make sure you are drinking enough through the day when you are out exploring, but you are reducing your single use plastic waste and spending less on bottled water too!
Remember, to say a massive thank you to all my readers, Bemused Backpacker has partnered up with Water To Go to give you an awesome 15% off any bottle or filter purchase made through the Water To Go Website here with the exclusive discount code BEMUSED15
Travelling the world will expose you to some risk, that is just the nature of taking a grand adventure, but posts like this aren’t here to scare you or put you off or lecture you, they are here to give you all the tools and information you need to negate those risks as much as possible. So get out there, enjoy the sun, enjoy the hot, tropical weather and take full advantage of it. Just be careful too.
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