Heat Stroke: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Heat stroke, also known as sunstoke, is the most serious form of heat injury and is considered a medical emergency. If you suspect that someone has a heat stroke, immediately call 911 and administer first aid until paramedics arrive.

Heat stroke can cause damage to the brain and other internal organs, it can also lead to death. Although heat stroke mostly affects people over age 50, it also affects young healthy athletes.

READ ALSO: Diaphoresis: Causes of Excessive Sweating

Heat stroke often occurs as a progression from minor heat-related illnesses such as heat syncope (fainting), heat cramps, and heat exhaustion. Heat stroke can strike even if you have no earlier signs of heat injury.

When the body is exposed to extremely high temperatures with dehydration, it results to heat stroke. The medical definition of heat stroke is a main body temperature greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, with complications involving the central nervous system, which occur after exposure to high temperatures.

Symptoms of Heat Stroke

The main symptom of heat stroke is a core body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Other symptoms may include:

  • Fainting
  • Agonizing headache
  • Red, hot, and dry skin
  • Seizures
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Lack of sweating despite heat
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat

First Aid for Heat Stroke

If you suspect that someone has a heat stroke, quickly call 911 or transport the person to a hospital. Any delay seeking medical help can result to fatal consequences.

While waiting for the arrival of the paramedics, initiate first aid. Move the person to an air-conditioned environment or at least a cool, shady area and remove any unnecessary clothing.

Try these cooling strategies:

  • Fan air over the patient while wetting his or her skin with water from a sponge or garden hose.
  • Apply ice packs to the patient’s armpits, groin, neck, and back. Because these areas are rich with vessels close to the skin, cooling them may reduce the temperature of the body.
  • Immerse the patient in a shower or tub of cool water.
  • If the person is young and healthy and suffered heat stroke during vigorous exercise, use an ice bath to help cool the temperature of the body.

Note: Do not use ice for older patients, young children, patients with chronic illness, or anyone whose heat stroke occurred without forceful exercise because it can be life-threatening.

Risk Factors for Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is most likely to affect older people who live in apartments or homes lacking air conditioning, good airflow or proper ventilation. Other high-risk groups include people of any age who don’t drink enough water, have chronic diseases, or who drink excessive amounts of alcohol.

Heat stroke is strongly related to the heat index, which is a measurement of how hot you feel when the effects of relative humidity and air temperature are combined. A relative humidity of 60% or more hinders sweat evaporation, which impedes the ability of your body to cool itself.

The risk of heat-related illness greatly increases when the heat index climbs to 90 degrees or more. So it’s important especially during heat waves to pay attention to the reported heat index, and also to remember that exposure to full sunshine can affect the reported heat index by 15 degrees.

If you live in an urban area, you may be more susceptible to develop heat stroke during a prolonged heat wave, particularly if there are stagnant atmospheric conditions and poor air quality. Other risk factors associated with heat-related illness include:

Age. Infants and children up to age 4, and adults over age 65, are more vulnerable because they adjust to heat more slowly than other age group.

Health conditions. Health conditions like high blood pressure (hypertension), obesity or underweight, diabetes, sickle cell, alcoholism, sunburn, (heart, lung, and kidney) disease, mental illness have higher risks of sun stroke.

Medications: These include diet pills, antihistamines, tranquilizers, sedatives, diuretics, stimulants, antidepressants, are associated with increased risk of heat stroke.

Preventing Heat Stroke

When the heat index is high, it is advisable to stay in an air-conditioned environment. If you must go outdoors, you can prevent heat stroke by taking these steps:

  • Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, and a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Drink extra fluids to prevent dehydration. It’s generally recommended to drink at least eight glasses of water, fruit juice, or vegetable juice daily.
  • Take additional precautions when exercising or working outdoors. The general recommendation is to drink 24 ounces of fluid two hours before exercise, and consider adding another 8 ounces of water or sports drink right before exercise. During exercise, you should consume another 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  • Monitor the color of your urine. This is because dark-coloured urine is a sign of dehydration. Be sure to drink sufficient fluids to maintain very light-colored urine.
  • Avoid fluids containing caffeine or alcohol, because both substances can make you lose more fluids and worsen heat-related illness. Also, do not take salt tablets unless your doctor has told you to do so. The easiest and safest way to replace salt and other electrolytes during heat waves is to drink sports beverages or fruit juice.

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