We waited a long time for warm summer days. But when temperatures soar into (and stay in) the 80s and beyond, too much heat and humidity can take a toll on your body.
Heat stroke is a huge concern during hot summer months. If ignored or left untreated, this heat-related condition can lead to life-threatening medical conditions.
Don’t let the summer heat get the best of you. Know the signs and symptoms of heat stroke and how to prevent its dangerous consequences.
What is heat stroke?
Heat stroke, also known as sunstroke, is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when body temperature rises so rapidly that the body’s natural cooling system (sweating) shuts down. Body temperature may rise to 106 degrees within a matter of minutes.
Heat stroke can be caused by intense physical activity in hot weather (exertion heat stroke) or from prolonged exposure to heat and humidity (non-exertion heat stroke).
Dangerously high body temperatures can damage the brain or other vital organs. In severe cases, heat stroke can lead to multiple organ system failure and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), extreme heat is the deadliest weather-related hazard in the U.S.
What are the signs and symptoms of heat stroke?
The signs of heat stroke can vary. Symptoms can include:
- Very high body temperature (above 103 degrees)
- Red, hot and dry skin that doesn’t sweat
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Rapid and strong pulse
- Throbbing headache
- Confusion or disorientation
- Low urine output
Heat stroke can happen quickly, but there are warning signs before it becomes too serious. Heat exhaustion is a milder, yet still dangerous, heat-related condition. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Excessive sweating
- Pale, clammy skin
- Muscle cramping
- Nausea or vomiting
Without treatment, heat exhaustion can develop into heat stroke. If symptoms of heat exhaustion do not improve within an hour, you should seek immediate medical care.
Who is at risk for heat stroke?
Anyone can get heat stroke, but certain individuals are more susceptible. People most at risk are:
- Adults 65 and older.
- People who have chronic illnesses, such as conditions that affect the heart, lung, kidney, liver, thyroid or blood vessels.
- Athletes, military personnel, people who work outdoors and others who partake in strenuous activities in hot weather.
Additional factors can also make you more prone to heat stroke, including:
- Drinking alcohol. The combo of alcohol and summer heat make for a bad cocktail. Alcohol is a diuretic, which means more peeing, sweating and fluid loss.
- Obesity. Carrying extra weight can affect how your body regulates its temperature and cause you to retain more heat.
- Dehydration. When your body sweats out more fluids and electrolytes than it takes in, it can lead to dehydration and heat exhaustion.
- Certain medications. Some drugs can affect the body’s ability regulate temperature, including diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, or heart and blood pressure medications.
- History of heat stroke. If you’ve had heat stroke in the past, your odds for getting it again are higher.
How can I avoid heat stroke?
While you can’t do much about the weather, heat stroke and other heat-related conditions are preventable. Here are some ways to avert heat exhaustion and heat stroke when temperatures top out:
- Dress appropriately. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and opt for lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing.
- Limit time outdoors. When scheduling summertime activities, avoid the heat of the day – especially when temperatures are at their peak (11 am-3 pm). Opt for morning or evening hours when it’s coolest.
- Stay hydrated. Active or not, your body needs more fluids when temperatures are high. Don’t wait until you’re thirsty to reach for the water. And avoid sugary or alcoholic drinks that can cause you to lose even more bodily fluids.
- Take frequent breaks. Whether you’re hitting the tennis court or meandering in the park, take time to hydrate and rest in shady areas to give your body a chance to recover.
- Wear sun screen. Sunburn can affect the body’s ability to cool down and can lead to dehydration. If you must be outdoors, apply sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher 30 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply according to packaging directions.
- Always avoid closed cars. The CDC estimates that when the temperature outside is 80 degrees, the temperature inside a closed car can rise to 109 degrees in just 20 minutes.
- Beat the heat. During extreme heat or heat waves, air conditioning is the best way to protect yourself from heat stroke and other heat-related illness. If you don’t have AC, opt for a movie, museum, local cooling center or other public place. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) offers tips on how to BeatTheHeat.
How is heat stroke treated?
If you suspect someone has heat stroke, call 911 or go to your nearest ER. If you’re waiting for emergency treatment to arrive, take steps to cool the person in distress:
- Move the person to a shaded area or indoors
- Remove any unnecessary clothing.
- Try to cool the person in any way possible:
- Apply icepacks or cold, wet towels to the neck, groin and armpits.
- Immerse in a cool tub of water or cool shower.
- Spray with a garden hose.
- Sponge with cool water.
- Mist with cool water and fan.
Important! Anyone suspected of having heat stroke should not consume water, sports drinks or other fluids while waiting for medical assistance. They may have an altered level of consciousness and cannot safely consume fluids.
An emergency care provider will evaluate symptoms and take steps to reduce elevated body temperature. Tests may be performed to check for potential complications, including:
- Muscle damage.
- Heart and lung damage.
- Circulatory system problems.
- Lack of kidney or liver function.
Indigo Health offers refreshing care, all summer long
Heat stroke is a very serious condition and requires immediate medical treatment. But it’s also important to get care if you or a loved one experiences milder effects from too much fun in the sun, from heat rashes to muscle cramping to sunburn. The friendly providers at Indigo Health can treat minor symptoms of heat-related illness.
Indigo’s seamless online scheduling, video and chat visits, and 35+ convenient locations make it easy breezy to fit in an appointment amid summer camp drop-offs, backyard barbeques, and lakeside vacations. Or just walk in. Our clinics are open 8 am to 8 pm every day, including holidays.