Becoming over-heated on hot days isn’t just uncomfortable, it can make you sick. Heat stroke can be deadly. Recognize heat stroke symptoms and stay safe.
Even if you work in an air-conditioned office, live in a comfortably cool house, and drive around town in a car with the air conditioning going full blast, that doesn’t mean you should ignore the dangers of hot weather. Heat stroke symptoms can develop surprisingly quickly when you are enjoying outdoor recreational activities or working outside on a summer day — or if your air conditioning breaks down.
Heat stroke is a life-threatening illness that takes the lives of several hundred Americans each year. Since 1998, about 750 children have died after suffering heat stroke in hot cars, according to a study in Pediatrics. And countless pets (left in hot cars or outside with no shade) also suffer and die annually from this preventable illness.
Learning to recognize heat stroke symptoms, and what to do if they develop, can help you and your family safely enjoy the summer months.
Who is at risk of heat stroke
Each year, millions of people are exposed to the dangers of becoming overly heated, leading to heat stroke. Outdoor laborers compose the largest percentage of people who suffer from heat-related illnesses (which include heat exhaustion and heat stroke).
People who exercise in hot environments, children, and the elderly are also especially vulnerable to heat stroke, according to the American Academy of Family Physicians. However, people of all ages and fitness levels are at risk of heat stroke if they become over-heated long enough.
A case in point: Rescue workers were called to help a woman who collapsed on a bike trail in Phoenix. She was young, just 28, and a super fit personal trainer. But while hiking up a challenging trail with some friends on a hot day, she complained of feeling exhausted and soon collapsed, not breathing. Her companions, although doctors, couldn’t save her. The young woman had suffered a fatal heat stroke.
How heat stroke symptoms develop
Heat stroke is part of a continuum of heat-related illnesses, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains.
If you are over-heated, you may first experience heat cramps. These muscle pains or spasms, which can be severe, may occur if you are exercising vigorously in hot weather, especially if you haven’t been drinking enough fluids. Anyone experiencing heat cramps needs to move to a cool place, remove any extra layers of clothes, and drink water or a sports drinks.
Heat exhaustion is the next most serious heat-related illness and usually precedes heat stroke, according to the CDC. Characterized by weakness, nausea, headache, dizziness, elevated body temperature, and extreme thirst, heat exhaustion requires moving immediately to a shady, cool area, drinking adequate fluids, and seeking medical treatment. Untreated, the American Association of Family Physicians notes, heat exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke.
If your body continues to overheat, usually because of prolonged exposure to hot weather or vigorous exercise in high temperatures, the result is a heat stroke. Your internal temperature can rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or even higher within just 10 to 15 minutes as the body’s sweating mechanism fails and loses the ability to cool you down. Without immediate emergency treatment, the outcome can be heart, muscle, brain, and kidney damage leading to disability or death, the CDC warns.
Heat stroke symptoms
In addition to an extremely high body temperature and hot, dry skin, signs of heat stroke include:
- Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech, delirium, or agitation
- Seizures and loss of consciousness
- Nausea and vomiting
- Flushed skin that can turn extremely red as temperatures rise
- Rapid and shallow breathing
- A racing heart rate
- Throbbing headache
Take these steps to help a person with symptoms of heat stroke:
- Call 911 for emergency medical care.
- Stay with the person until emergency help arrives.
- Move the person to a cool area and remove outer clothing.
- Cool the person with whatever is available. For example, put the heat stroke victim in a cool tub of water or a cool shower, sponge with cool water, spray with a hose, or place wet cloths or ice on the person’s head, neck, armpits, and groin.
- Circulate the air around the person by fanning to speed cooling.
July 12, 2018
Janet O’Dell, RN