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Heat Stroke: More Serious Than You Think

Jun 14, 2021

The weather is heating up, and as the temperature rises, so does the risk of heat stroke. We aren't talking about simply feeling hot, or uncomfortable, or sweating excessively. "Heat stroke is life threatening emergency," says Matthew Steimle, DO, a pediatric emergency physician with University of Utah Health.

"Normally, your body is able to regulate its temperature," say Scott Youngquist, MD, an emergency medicine physician also with U of U Health. "However, with heat stroke, that stops happening, and so the body temperature stays too high."

Prolonged exposure to high temperatures is the core cause of heat stroke, but there are several mitigating factors as well. "The elderly are the most vulnerable," says Steimle. "But heat illness is also significant among healthy young people. Exertional heat stroke is most likely to occur in young healthy people involved in strenuous physical activity." Your surroundings and even what you are wearing can also play a role.

"Confined, unventilated spaces can increase the risk of heat stroke," says Youngquist. "Also, darker clothes or clothes that don't allow air flow to the skin can increase the likelihood of heat stroke."

While you may think of beaches or deserts as prime places for heat stroke, the center of urban areas also hold dangers. "Heat islands occur on the surface and in the atmosphere," says Steimle. "On a hot, sunny summer day, the sun can heat dry, exposed urban surfaces, such as roofs and pavement, to temperatures hotter than the air." The heat island effect can be seen at all times, but is most common during the day when the sun is shining, so that is when you should be most cautious.

The symptoms of heatstroke are similar to those of heat exhaustion but more severe. "Fatigue, headache, dizziness, and nausea are common with both," says Youngquist. "However, with heat stroke, normal cooling measures like moving into the shade or drinking water won't work."

Adds Steimle: "Often but not always sweating ceases before the onset of heatstroke. There also may be symptoms such as a sense of impending doom, confusion, euphoria, trouble walking, seizures, or loss of consciousness."

The best way to avoid heat stroke is to stay cool and hydrated. "Make sure you are drinking plenty of water," says Youngquist. "Thirst means your body is already dehydrated, so try not to even get to that point." During the hottest parts of the day, try to stay out of the sun. If that isn't possible, take short breaks to cool down.

When heatstroke does occur, begin cooling immediately and seek medical care. "Clothing should be removed, and the patient should be transported to an emergency facility in open or air-conditioned vehicles," says Steimle. "Ice packs may be placed in the neck, groin, or axilla. Spraying the patient with tepid water and using fans is also very helpful."