Heat Stroke : Symptoms, Risk Factors, First Aid & Prevention


Heat stroke is a condition which occurs when the body gets overheated mostly because of exposure and physical exertion to high temperature situation for a long time. Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat injury and is considered as a medical emergency condition. It occurs when the body temperature will increase above 40 C (104 F) or higher. When the temperature of the body increases dramatically, dehydration may also occur at the same time.

If somebody gets a heat stroke then you should seek emergency help immediately. In the United States, you should call 911 for immediate emergency help. First aid services should be provided to the victim until the paramedics will arrive. In simple words, Heat stroke can also be referred as a sort of hyperthermia in which the temperature of the body will rise dramatically.

Heat stroke is so fatal that it can damage the brain and other internal organs of the person. It can also cause immediate death. Mostly, infants and adults over the age of 50 years fall victim to heat stroke but sometimes young athletes can also be affected by heat stroke. Most of the times, heat stroke occurs followed by some other problems related to heat illness, for example heat cramps, fainting or heat exhaustion. However, one has to remember that a person can fall victim to heat stroke even without any primary symptoms.

Usually, heat stroke occurs because of exposure to high temperature conditions for a long period of time. It can also cause dehydration which may cause failure of the body organs and temperature control system. Heat stroke causes complications in the central nervous system after the person is exposed to high temperature. Most of the common symptoms related to heat stroke are loss of consciousness, seizures, confusion, disorientation and nausea.


Symptoms of Heat stroke

The main symptom of Heat stroke is that the body temperature will rise above 104 F or 40 C. The person may also become unconscious as a result.

Other symptoms of heat stroke include the following:

  1. Feeling of dizziness or light headedness
  2. Cramps and weakness of the muscles
  3. Skin getting red, hot and dry
  4. Seizures and losing consciousness
  5. Vomiting and nausea
  6. No sweat even though it is too hot
  7. Fast heartbeat which can be weak or strong as well
  8. Fastness and difficulty in breathing
  9. Change in behavior which may lead to confusion, agitation, disorientation or staggering
  10. Rapid pulse

Risk factors of Heat stroke

Heat stroke can occur in aged people who live in homes or apartments without any proper air conditioning system or well managed air flowing system. Anyone can be at high risk of heat stroke if you don’t drink enough water or have some other chronic type of illness. You also have chances of heat stroke if you drink alcohol in excessive amount.

Heat index is a measurement of how hot a person may feel when relative humidity and air temperature gives a combined effect. So, heat stroke is mostly related to the heat index. If the humidity is above 60 % then the sweat evaporation process can be hampered. As a result, it affects the body’s ability to cool down itself.

When the heat index goes above 90 degrees, then the risk of heat stroke increases dramatically. So, it is wise to check on the heat index during heat waves. Another point to remember is that if a person is exposed to sunshine then the heat index also increases by up to 15 degrees.

In urban areas, the air quality is poor and the atmospheric condition is also stagnant so a person living in urban area is at high risk of heat wave during long heat wave situations. ‘Heat island effect’ can occur in urban areas when the concrete and asphalt stone heats up during the day time and they slowly releases the heat at night. It may result in the rise in temperatures at night. As mentioned earlier, the main risk factors for heat stroke are as follows.

  1. Age: Most of the children below the age of 4 and old aged people above 65 years are at high risk of heat stroke. Their body system takes longer time to adjust to the heat.
  2. Health conditions and other chronic illness: Specific health conditions or some other form of chronic illness can also cause higher risk for the person to get affected by heat stroke. The health problems include heart disease, Lung diseases, kidney disease, Obesity, underweight, high blood pressure, diabetes, mental problems, sickle cell anemia, high fever, sunburn etc.
  3. Specific medications: Some specific medications used to treat certain conditions can also cause increased risk of heat stroke. Those medications include diet pills, Antihistamines, diuretics, sedatives, tranquilizers, stimulants, seizure medications, heart and blood pressure medications, antidepressants and antipsychotics. Illegal drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine also increase the risk of heat stroke.
  4. Diabetic patients: People who have diabetes should be more careful during heat wave conditions.

Please consult an expert medical professional or a doctor to find out about your conditions and possible risks during heat wave situations.

How to do first aid in case of heat stroke?

If you feel that somebody has fallen victim to a heat stroke then you should seek immediate emergency help. The person should be immediately rushed to a hospital where medical care and treatment is available. If there is any kind of delay then it can result in fatal circumstances.

As already mentioned before, it may take some time for the paramedics to arrive. Each passing minute can be very important for the person so first aid should be initiated in that time. It is important to move the person to an air conditioned room. If there is no air conditioned room then the person should be shifted to a place where there is shade and cool environment. Remember to remove unnecessary clothes from the body of the person.

If it is possible then you are advised to take the body temperature of the person. Then apply measures to bring down the body temperature by adopting different body cooling methods. If there are no thermometers to measure the body temperature then first aid should still be initiated without any delay.

The different methods to cool down the body are as given below.

  1. Provide air to the patient by using a fan.
  2. Use a sponge or garden hose to wet the patient’s skin with water.
  3. Use ice packs on the armpits, groin, back and neck of the patient.
  4. Try to use a shower or tub of cool water to cool down the patient’s body temperature.
  5. If the patient is victim of exertional heat stroke which is caused in young and healthy people as result of hard physical exercise then ice bath can be adopted to cool down the body.( This method of ice bath is not to be applied on older people, children, patients with other chronic illness or patients who got heat stroke without exercise because it can be dangerous in these cases)

Prevention of Heat stroke

The best way to prevent heat stroke is to stay in air conditioned environment during heat wave conditions. If you really have to go out in the sun, then you should take preventive measures which are as listed below.

  1. Always use a proper sunscreen which has SPF (sun protecting factor) of 30 or more.
  2. Drink a lot of water or fluids. It is advised to drink at least eight glasses of water or juice every day. If it is too hot and humid then you can also drink electrolyte-rich sports drink to substitute the loss of salt from the body.
  3. Always wear light and loose fitting clothes which are of light color. It is also advised to protect the head by wearing hat.
  4. Be more careful when you are doing outdoor workout. Drink at least 24 ounce of fluid two hours before the workout and at least 8 ounces after the workout.
  5. During the heat wave conditions, change your schedule of workout. Do it during the mornings or evening time when it is comparatively cooler.
  6. Check the color of your urine to find out the effect of heat waves. If you have dark colored urine then you may have been hit by dehydration. In that case, you have to drink a lot of water or fluid until the color of urine turns light in color.
  7. If you are working out then you need to check your weight before and after the workout. If you lose too much weight after the workout then you need to supply your body with lost water during workout.
  8. Don’t leave your infants, children or animals inside a car for long time. The temperature inside a locked car can rise to dangerous conditions even during moderate weather. There have been many reported cases in which children have lost lives inside a locked car because of a heat stroke.

Water or fluid is extremely essential to maintain the body temperature. So during heat wave situations we need to make sure that the body gets enough supply of fluid. However, it is necessary to note that fluids which contain caffeine or alcohol may cause negative effects. Caffeine containing drinks or alcoholic drinks can cause dehydration and lack of water in the body.

You are also advised to take salt tablets only if you are prescribed by the doctor. It is better to drink sports beverages or fruit juice to replace the lost salt or electrolytes during workout. Also remember that you need to consult your doctor if you are about to increase the intake of fluids but you have problems related to heart, kidney or liver. In these cases, you may have problem with fluid retention and you may be on a fluid restricted diet so a doctor’s advice is a must.

If you are living in heat wave conditions then try to spend at least a few hours every day in an air conditioned environment. If your house does not have fans or air conditioners then stay in a cool place with a shade for at least two hours every day. When you are at home, pull the curtains and shades during the hot time in the day. At night time, open the windows so that there will be cross ventilation.

Finally, you should not be careless when you recover from a heat stroke condition because the body may be at more risk because of high temperature conditions in the next weeks. Consult your doctor on a regular basis for appropriate advice. Don’t do heavy workouts and stay away from hot weather conditions until it is safe to do so.

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