Young man and heat stroke

Understanding the dangers of heatstroke

Heatstroke, also known as hyperthermia, occurs when someone spends too much time in the heat without taking in enough fluids. It’s sometimes aggravated by physical exertion. Without enough fluid to produce sweat, the body’s temperature quickly rises to 104ºF or higher, making a person sick.

When someone shows signs of heatstroke, it’s important to seek treatment immediately. Heatstroke is a medical emergency that causes damage to the body’s vital organs. The longer treatment is delayed, the greater the risk of serious complications such as brain damage, or even death.

What are heatstroke symptoms?

In most cases, when the body is exposed to heat, it uses the process of sweating to cool down. When a person spends too much time in the heat without getting enough fluids, however, this cooling process fails to work. As a result, body temperature rises, causing the person to become sick.

Heat exhaustion

It’s important to stay alert for heatstroke symptoms on hotter-than-average days or whenever someone is exposed to heat for long periods of time. Heat exhaustion, a precursor to heatstroke, can be the first sign of a problem. Anyone experiencing the following symptoms and signs of heat exhaustion should take immediate steps to hydrate and cool down the body before the condition progresses to heatstroke.

Signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Headache
  • Fainting

Get medical help if the symptoms of heat exhaustion last longer than one hour, get worse, or the person is throwing up.

Heatstroke symptoms

Signs of heatstroke are similar to those for heat exhaustion, with a few notable exceptions:

  • Instead of a rapid, weak pulse, the pulse will become rapid and strong because heat stress places a greater burden on the heart
  • Breathing may become rapid and shallow
  • Instead of heavy sweating, there may be little to no sweating due to severe dehydration
  • The skin will feel hot and dry, and may turn red as the body temperature rises
  • A throbbing headache may occur
  • An altered mental state can result in agitation, confusion, slurred speech, delirium, seizures, or coma

For both heat exhaustion and heatstroke, it’s important to cool the body immediately by whatever means are available. Sipping water, not sugary drinks, is recommended for rehydration of those experiencing heat exhaustion. Heatstroke sufferers should not be given anything to drink.

How to respond to heatstroke

At the first signs of heatstroke, seek immediate medical help. It’s essential to get medical care quickly to prevent permanent damage to vital organs.

Call 911, and then take steps to cool down the overheated person while you wait for help to arrive. Move the person into the shade and remove any excess clothing. You can also lower the body temperature by placing the person in a shower or a tub of cool water.

Other cooling options include spraying the person with a garden hose, placing wet towels or ice packs on the head, neck, armpits, and groin, or placing the overheated person in front of a fan while misting with water.

What are common complications of heatstroke?

Heatstroke can quickly harm vital organs such as the heart, brain, kidneys, and muscles. The longer the body temperature remains high, the more severe the complications.

This is why it’s crucial to seek immediate medical treatment. Delaying treatment can cause the brain and other vital organs to swell, resulting in permanent damage. Without prompt and adequate treatment, heatstroke can be fatal.

Who is most susceptible to heatstroke?

Although anyone can develop heatstroke, there are certain factors that make some people more vulnerable than others. For example, those over 65 and the very young are less able to cope with heat. This is because young children don’t have a fully developed nervous system, leaving them more susceptible to changes in body temperature. In older adults, the nervous system begins to weaken. These two groups also have greater difficulty staying properly hydrated.

Chronic health conditions, such as obesity, poor circulation, and heart disease, also increase the risk for heatstroke, as well as taking certain medications. Many prescription medications impact the way the body responds to heat. Some that are particularly dangerous include antidepressants, diuretics, medications that narrow the blood vessels or regulate blood pressure, and stimulants. Alcohol and illegal stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines also increase heat sensitivity.

People involved in certain high-exertion activities should be careful regardless of age or health, especially when they’re suddenly exposed to hot weather. It’s important to stay alert for signs of heatstroke among those taking part in such rigorous activities as sports, military training, or construction work.

Other common heatstroke causes include:

  • Sudden exposure to hot weather
  • A lack of air conditioning
  • Having a fever
  • Experiencing a recent sunburn

What are some effective ways to prevent heatstroke?

Heatstroke prevention begins with avoiding the common heatstroke causes discussed above. Limit exposure to heat during the hottest part of the day. Plan high-exertion activities for cooler times, such as the early morning or evening.

Those who must be outside in the heat should take time to properly acclimate. It’s also essential to stay well hydrated by drinking plenty of water. Sunscreen can protect against sunburn, which affects the body’s ability to cool itself. Choose lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing over dark, heavy apparel.

Never sit or leave someone in a hot car, even with the windows cracked. The interior temperature can rise 20ºF in only 10 minutes when a vehicle is parked in the sun. It’s also a good idea to keep your car locked while parked to prevent children from getting inside.

For those at increased risk, heatstroke prevention is especially important. Avoid the heat altogether, if possible, and respond quickly to any symptoms. If rigorous activity can’t be avoided, such as at a sporting event, make certain that medical services are available in case of an emergency.