What is Heat Stroke?
Heat stroke is a medical emergency condition that occurs when the body's core temperature increases above normal levels (usually above 104°F or 40°C) due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures or physical exertion in hot and humid conditions. Heat stroke is a severe form of heat-related illness and can cause damage to the brain, heart, kidneys, and other organs. Heat stroke can even be fatal if not treated promptly.
There are two types of heat stroke.
Exertional heat stroke
This is a condition in which the core body temperature rises as a result of vigorous physical exercise in hot conditions. Exertional heat stroke can happen to anyone who exercises or works in hot weather, but it's more likely to occur in individuals who aren't adapted to high temperatures.
Non-exertional heat stroke
This sort of heat stroke develops when exposed to hot, humid weather for an extended period. It is prevalent in older folks and those who have chronic conditions.
Common symptoms of heatstroke include
- High body temperature greater than or equal to 104°F or 40°C
- Altered mental state or confusion
- Slurred speech
- Profuse sweating
- Dry or hot skin
- Increased heart rate
- Increased respiratory rate
- Excessive thirst
- Muscle cramps
- Loss of consciousness
Symptoms of heatstroke can sometimes look similar to other conditions, like a heart attack. Also, some people feel mild signs of heat exhaustion before progressing to heat stroke.
Heatstroke occurs when the body can't cool itself down through its natural thermoregulatory system (hypothalamus) in response to hot temperatures. Typically hypothalamus sets your temperature at about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. But if the body takes in more heat than it releases, internal temperature rises above this set point causing heat stroke.
Some common risk factors for heat stroke include:
Exposure to high temperatures and humidity for extended periods is the primary risk factor for heat stroke.
Older adults and children are at higher risk of heat stroke because of their inability to regulate their body temperature effectively.
Some medications, like antihistamines, diuretics, and beta-blockers, can interfere with the body's natural ability to regulate its temperature.
Lack of adequate fluid intake or excessive sweating can lead to dehydration, which increases the risk of heat stroke.
Wearing excess clothing
Over clothing prevents sweat from evaporating quickly and cooling the body.
Alcohol and drug use
Alcohol and drugs can impair judgment and interfere with the body's ability to regulate temperature, making individuals more susceptible to heat stroke.
Strenuous physical activity
Engaging in strenuous physical activity in humid and hot conditions can increase the risk of heat stroke.
Heat stroke can result in various complications, depending on how long the temperature rises. Severe complications of heat stroke include:
Vital organ damage
Without a quick response to reduce body temperature, heatstroke may trigger the brain and other vital organs to swell, possibly resulting in permanent damage.
Without prompt and adequate treatment, heatstroke can be fatal.
The diagnosis of heat stroke is usually based on a combination of clinical symptoms and physical findings. If you suspect that someone is experiencing heat stroke, it is essential to pursue medical attention immediately. A healthcare provider will typically perform the following assessments and tests:
The healthcare provider will perform a physical exam to check for signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Core body temperature
The healthcare provider may use a thermometer to check the person's core body temperature. A temperature of 104°F or higher usually indicates heat stroke.
Blood tests may be performed to check for electrolyte imbalances or other complications of heat stroke.
Urine tests may be performed to check for kidney damage or dehydration signs.
Imaging tests, such as a chest X-ray and CT scan, may be performed to check for complications, such as pneumonia or brain swelling.
Other tests, such as an electrocardiogram (ECG) or arterial blood gas test, may be performed to check for heart or lung complications.
Heat stroke is a severe condition that requires prompt treatment. Here are the steps to take if you suspect someone is experiencing heat stroke:
Move the person to a cooler place
If possible, move the person to a cooler environment, such as a shaded area or air-conditioned room.
Remove excess clothing
Remove any unnecessary clothing to help the body cool down.
Cool the person down
Use any available means to help cool the person's body, such as placing them in a cool bath or shower or using a spray bottle or fan to mist the skin with water.
Offer the person cool water or other fluids to help them rehydrate.
Seek medical attention
Heat stroke sometimes is a medical emergency, and it is important to seek medical attention immediately. Call emergency services or take the person to the nearest hospital.
Monitor vital signs
While waiting for medical assistance, monitor the person's vital signs, including pulse and breathing rate.
It is important to note that early recognition and prompt treatment of heat stroke can greatly improve the prognosis and reduce the risk of complications.
The time it takes to recover from heat stroke varies from person to person. A person recovering from heat stroke usually spends one to two days in the hospital. If any vital organ is affected by heat stroke, the patient will need time to recover.
Precautions to be taken to prevent heat stroke
Drink plenty of fluids and water to keep your body hydrated. Avoid alcohol and caffeine, as they can cause dehydration.
Wear light-coloured, loose-fitting clothing that allows air to circulate freely around your body.
Avoid peak heat hours
Stay indoors or in the shade during peak heat hours, typically from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Take frequent breaks
Take frequent breaks in cool or shaded areas to avoid overheating. Try to avoid strenuous activities during the hottest parts of the day
Apply sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 30 to protect the skin against the adverse effects of the sun.
Take cool showers or baths, or use cold compresses to cool down your body temperature.
Check on others
Check on elderly or vulnerable individuals who may be more susceptible to heat stroke.
Following these precautions can help prevent heat stroke and stay safe during hot weather conditions.