Heat Stroke

What is a Heat Stroke?

Exposure to prolonged and extreme high temperatures causes the most serious form of heat injury, heat stroke. From spending too much time in a sauna to running a marathon when the heat index is above 100 degrees F, you can accidentally trigger this potentially life-threatening condition in many ways.

The heat index matters more than just the outdoor or indoor temperature when dealing with heat injuries. This number combines the relative humidity and temperature since high air humidity levels prevent your body from cooling through sweating.

What are the Symptoms of a Heat Stroke?

Heat exhaustion, a mild condition, usually precedes heat stroke, but not always. The earliest signs of stress from overheating include headaches, decreased urine levels, dizziness, and weakness. Once the condition progresses into full heat stroke, the affected person may lose consciousness. If they’re conscious, slurred speech and odd behavior are common.

Measuring the body’s temperature will reveal a high fever, resulting in heavy sweating. Delaying medical treatment at this point can put the person’s life in danger, and they may not be able to seek help on their own. Calling emergency services for anyone who appears at this stage of heat stress is the best course of action.

Heat Stroke Causes

Many sufferers of heat stroke are people who are less able to regulate their body temperature. This includes children, infants, the elderly and pregnant women. Anyone can get heat stroke when a person’s core temperature becomes too high because their internal cooling systems, such as evaporative cooling and sweating, become overwhelmed. This can happen when doing too much activity in hot weather or when the exposure to high temperatures goes on for too long. Dehydration can also cause this condition. Wearing too much clothing in the heat, wearing clothing that is too tight, drinking alcohol and getting an intense sunburn can also be causes. Playing sports in hot weather, not taking enough water breaks and staying in a hot car are all causes of this condition. Heat stroke is common in children who are left in cars in hot weather or vehicles that are in direct sunlight. There are also many medications that make it more likely to suffer from heat stroke.

How is a Heat Stroke Treated?

Since it can take half an hour or more in some areas for ambulances to reach a person with heat exhaustion, there are some first aid steps a bystander or affected patient can take. Find shade and remove the outer layers of clothing when possible. If water or ice is available, use it to begin cooling the person down. The neck, armpits, and groin area all feature large blood vessels, so cooling these areas results in a faster reduction of temperature.

Once the person is taken to the hospital, they may experience an ice bath or become wrapped in cooling blankets. Medications are given to prevent shivering as well since this is the body’s attempt to warm back up.

Heat Stroke Prevention

Pay attention to the heat index. Even if the air temperature isn’t very high, the heat index may be higher, and this can cause heatstroke faster. Stay in an air-conditioned environment when the heat index is high. When you’re outdoors on a hot day, wear light-colored clothing that is loose fitting and lightweight. Wear a breathable hat that will keep your head cooler and keep your face from becoming sunburned. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids in hot weather. Schedule plenty of water breaks during sports and other intensive activities. Drinking sports drinks with electrolytes can also be helpful. Cancel outdoor activities on extremely hot days, or move them to the coolest part of the day. The best way to prevent heat stroke is not to engage in strenuous activity when the weather is hot and humid.

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Last Reviewed:
September 14, 2016
Last Updated:
January 09, 2018