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Heat Stroke: More Serious Than You Think

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.

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

Who's at risk of heat stroke?

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 Matthew Steimle, DO, a pediatric emergency physician at University of Utah Health. "But heat illness is also significant among healthy young people. Exertional heat stroke most likely occurs in young healthy people involved in strenuous physical activity."

What can increase your chance of experiencing heat stroke?

Your surroundings and even what you are wearing can play a role. Darker clothes that don't allow air flow to the skin can increase the likelihood of heat stroke. Confined, unventilated spaces can also increase your risk.

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," Steimle says. "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. That is when you should be most cautious.

What are the symptoms of heat stroke?

The symptoms of heatstroke are similar to those of heat exhaustion but more severe. They include:

  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea

Often times, sweating ceases before the onset of heat stroke, Some people may feel confused, lose consciousness, have trouble walking, or suffer a seizure. When you get into dangerous territory like this, normal cooling measures like moving into the shade or drinking water won't work. This is when you need emergency help.

How can you avoid heat stroke?

The best way to avoid heat stroke is to stay cool and hydrated. "Make sure you are drinking plenty of water," Youngquist says. "Thirst means your body is already dehydrated, so try not to 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 heat stroke occurs...

When heat stroke occurs, begin cooling immediately and seek medical care. "Clothing should be removed, and the patient should be transported to an emergency facility in an open or air-conditioned vehicle," Steimle says. "Ice packs can be placed on the neck, groin, or axilla. Spraying the patient with tepid water and using fans can also be very helpful."