Heat Stroke 101: Stay Safe This Summer

A mother and son take a water break on the basketball court during the summer.
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Summer can mean more freedom, adventure and fun. Kids are out of school, your family may be taking a much-needed vacation, and everyone is spending more time outdoors. But while being outside can energize the body, mind and spirit, it can also create health issues.

Blue skies and sunshine bring more heat and humidity. The summer sun can be intense, and with too much exposure, even cause dangerous heat stroke. Learn what exactly heat stroke is, how to recognize the symptoms and when you need to seek medical care.

What is Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition that happens when your core body temperature rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and is no longer able to cool itself.

How Do I Get Heat Stroke?

Being outdoors makes you vulnerable to the elements, especially the heat caused by the summer sun. But it’s important to keep in mind that heat stroke can also happen while you’re inside. If your home isn’t air conditioned, you can still be vulnerable to the heat.

In times of extreme heat, you should also be careful about physical activities. Strenuous exercise — whether indoors or out — during times of extreme heat can also make you vulnerable.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heat Stroke?

Knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat stroke can help you save a life. They include:

  • Coma (unconsciousness lasting a long time)
  • Confusion or hallucinations
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Dizziness
  • Elevated body temperature (104 degrees F or higher)
  • Fainting (unconsciousness lasting a short time)
  • Fast, strong, pounding pulse
  • Headache
  • Hot, red, dry or clammy skin
  • Nausea
  • Not sweating
  • Slurred speech

Actions to Take

Heat stroke is a medical emergency. Treating it early is vital to avoiding complications, some of which are fatal. If you suspect a loved one is experiencing heat stroke, take the following actions:

  • Call 911 or get them to the hospital immediately
  • Lower their body temperature by applying cool cloths or putting them in a cool bath
  • Move the person to a cooler location, preferably in an area with air conditioning

Diagnosis

A physician usually makes a clinical diagnosis of heat stroke by a physical review of the symptoms and measuring core body temperature. And since other conditions such as sepsis, malaria, certain cancers and drug abuse can have similar symptoms as heat stroke, a physician may order the following additional tests to rule out other causes. Some tests used for diagnosing heat stroke are:

Blood Tests

With a blood test, physicians can:

  • Check kidney and liver function
  • Measure sodium, electrolytes, potassium and bicarbonates
  • Rule out anemia, infections and diabetes
  • Screen for drug use

Chest X-Rays

Chest X-rays can help physicians look for — or better understand — any damage to the lungs.

ECG

An electrocardiogram (ECG) can help physicians check or monitor heart activity.

Advanced Imaging

Advanced imaging technologies, such as MRI and CT scans, help physicians look for abnormalities and complications of heat stroke on the large organs.

Urine Test

Physicians can check for damage to muscles or kidneys due to complications of heat stroke with a simple urine test.

Treatment

Treatment for heat stroke is time-critical to prevent further complications or possibly save a life. Treatment may include:

  • Administering medications to control shivering
  • Cooling the skin using cool —not cold— water (usually done under medical supervision to avoid a dangerous drop in blood pressure)
  • Hospitalizing the victim to provide fluids and electrolytes, and to monitor breathing and circulation
  • Inserting a urinary catheter to monitor urinary output
  • Loosening of tight, restrictive clothing to increase airflow
  • Massaging the skin to increase blood circulation

Ways to Avoid Heat Stroke

Arm yourself with knowledge and be proactive. When your area is experiencing extreme temperatures, follow these tips to avoid heat stroke:

  • Check on loved ones and friends at risk for heat-related illnesses (especially children, the elderly and those who are sick)
  • Drink lots of fluids (especially water)
  • Never leave children or pets in a parked vehicle with the doors and windows closed (not even for a few minutes)
  • Plan activities in air-conditioned areas to stay cool
  • Take breaks in shaded or air conditioned areas when outdoors to allow your body to cool off
  • Wear a hat and lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing

Be Prepared, Act Quickly

Heat stroke is a medical emergency and treatment in early stages can prevent serious complications. If you or a loved one show signs of heat stroke, call 911 immediately for prompt action.

Learn more about AdventHealth emergency care and find the nearest location.

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