Looking at Hyperthermia

Heat stroke (or hyperthermia) is one of the more serious ailments that occur in the summer heat and weather. A form of hyperthermia (a raised body temperature that effects both the neurological and the physical), it will make the person dehydrated and disoriented. Unless treated quickly, heat stroke can have very serious consequences.

Heat stroke typically affects the elderly, children, sports players, and those who make a living working outdoors (carpenters or builders, etc) with a higher percentage than others. Those that exert themselves in the heat of the season without proper hydration and care can find themselves in the middle of heat stroke quickly.

Heat Stroke and its Causes

Unfortunately, all too often heat exhaustion leads to heat stroke which is quite deadly. People suffering from heat stroke should receive medical care as soon as possible or death will be imminent.

Heat stroke, often called sun stroke, occurs primarily because the person is no longer able to perspire because they are dehydrated. Their body temperature will rise dramatically because the body is not able to cool itself. The symptoms for heat stroke are similar to heat exhaustion, except the heat stroke victim will run a high temperature. The person may also become disoriented and combative. Because blood pressure drops due to dehydration, the person may also experience faintness or dizziness.

Like heat exhaustion, heat stroke victims need to be cooled and their temperatures brought down. Cold compresses to the head, neck and groin area will help. A cool bath, not cold, will also be effective but make certain someone is there to watch that the person does not faint and drown.

Liquids are critical, but at this point salt intake will also be required. A sports drink or something similar should also be given. The best case scenario, however, is to get the person in the shade, apply cold compresses and get immediate medical help.

Heat Stroke Symptoms

Most people who get to the heat stroke stage will start to exhibit symptoms of heat exhaustion before heat stroke.

Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

Fatigue and cramping are usually the first signs of overheating. Ignoring the signs can lead to symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • Skin that’s red and very hot to the touch
  • Excessive sweating
  • Lightheaded feeling, dizziness, feeling faint
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Pounding in the head or headache

Symptoms of Heat Stroke

Heat conditions commonly occur outdoors from overexertion in hot weather, but poor housing conditions contribute to heat related deaths, as well. Symptoms of heat stroke:

  • Skin that’s very hot to the touch and may be dry. Color is usually pale.
  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Rapid pulse
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Seizures
  • Coma

Heat stroke can result in death. It’s important to know that hyperthermia does not have to go through “stages” before it becomes serious. A person can become dangerously overheated in a matter of minutes and with little to no warning, especially one who has a medical condition. Also at high risk for heat-related ailments are the elderly, infants, and children. Victims may display the symptoms of heat stroke without complaining first of lesser symptoms associated with heat cramps and heat exhaustion.

Heat Stroke Treatment

The most immediate thing to do for those in heat stroke is to call for help and then make sure the person is out of direct sunlight and start to cool the person, with water and fanning. Check the temperature of those in suspected heat stroke, so that EMS services will know the temperature and how much it was dropped before they arrived on scene. Cooling the person is the best thing prior to the EMS services arriving on scene.

What to Do for Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke Victims

The skin helps to regulate body temperature. When heat builds up in the body, sweat glands produce sweat which evaporates and cools the skin. When the body begins to overheat, blood vessels expand, bringing more blood to the skin’s surface where heat is lost. However, when the body cannot cool down due to extreme heat and humidity, the situation becomes dangerous and life-threatening.

If you or someone else is experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • Get to a shaded or air-conditioned area.
  • Cool the body with water and ice as rapidly as possible.
  • Monitor skin color, skin temperature, and the victim’s condition.

If someone shows symptoms of heat stroke:

  • Get the victim to a cool or shaded area.
  • Call emergency services immediately.
  • Cool the victim’s body with water and ice. The Web site, MedicineNet.com, posts information in the article, “Heat Stroke: How Do You Treat a Heat Stroke Victim” and states, “Get the victim to a shady area, remove clothing, apply cool or tepid water to the skin (for example you may spray the victim with cool water from a garden hose), fan the victim to promote sweating and evaporation, and place ice packs under armpits and groins.”
  • Monitor temperature (or feel skin temperature), skin color, and the victim’s condition until emergency medical help arrives.

The NOAH (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Web site features the article, “Heat Wave – a Major Summer Killer” and reports the following statistics: “Heat is the number one weather-related killer. On average, more than 1,500 people in the U.S. die each year from excessive heat. This number is greater than the 30-year mean annual number of deaths due to tornadoes, hurricanes, floods and lightning combined.”

Heat Stroke Prevention

While it’s true that older people may be more predisposed to these conditions, they can happen to anybody, and actually do so at a much higher frequency than people realize.

Both of these condition can be avoided if one makes sensible decisions about activities during especially hot weather. For example, besides keeping hydrated by drinking water every fifteen minutes or so, don’t consume lots of alcohol or eat heavy, hot meals. This kind of food raises one’s body temperature normally anyway. Exercise only in the early, cooler morning hours or in an air conditioned room. Avoid being in the sun as much as possible. If it’s necessary to be outdoors, wear a hat for shade, dress in loose clothing and avoid sunburn. Know the symptoms of heat exhaustion in order to treat it properly and to stop it from advancing to heat stroke.

There are a few simple things that can be done to prevent heat stroke and heat exhaustion.

  • Stay hydrated. Keeping hydrated with water is one of the most important preventative measures in the heat of sun and humidity of weather. Drink plenty of water, even if you’re not thirsty. Avoid caffeine or alcohol that can lead to more dehydration.
  • Wear a hat and loose clothing. This will keep the body aerated and the sun off the body directly. Direct sun will dry out and remove fluids quickly. Box up your dark colored tight-fitting clothes and save them for fall and winter. In summer months, only wear loose fitting, light-colored clothing, in addition to a hat and sunglasses.
  • Watch sweat. If there is a tremendous amount of sweating going on, replenish the fluids with water and with electrolyte replenishers like some sports drinks. If there was sweat but it has stopped and yet the person is red and still very warm, heat stroke could be setting in.
  • Consume more salt – If you know you’ll be spending more time than usual in the sun, consume slightly more salt than normally with your meals.
  • Avoid the hottest hours – Stay indoors during the hottest hours of the day, choosing early mornings and evenings for outdoor activities. Stay in a cool place and if your home isn’t air conditioned, spend time where it’s cool such as a mall, library or relative’s home. Don’t walk or run outdoors in extreme heat. Instead, get your exercise in a cool gym or walk in a mall.
  • Check weather reports – Each day know what’s predicted for the weather, avoiding the outdoors on days slated for hot temperatures.
  • Limit time in sauna or hot tub – Don’t spend more than 15 minutes in a sauna or hot tub during hot summer days.
  • Children should not be left in vehicles in summertime, even when they are parked in shade. The sun moves, and a vehicle that is in shade when the driver walks away may be in direct sunshine a short time later.
  • The elderly and the young should not be left unattended in unventilated homes without air conditioning.
  • Athletic activities and other strenuous exertion should not be undertaken in the heat of the day; when such activity is necessary, fluid replacement must be a primary concern. In situations where individuals sweat profusely, or in very hot, dry conditions, electrolyte replacement should also be provided.
  • A rounded teaspoon of table salt in five gallons of water, diluted punch, or Kool-Aid provides an adequate hydrating solution.
  • Thirst is a poor indicator of hydration status during exertion; therefore, fluids (and electrolytes, if indicated) must be drunk periodically regardless of thirst. However, overhydration must be avoided; although plain water provides adequate hydration for most situations, ingestion of too much water can lead to dilution of plasma electrolytes.
  • Cool water is absorbed more readily than warm water.
  • Specialized hydrating solutions are rarely required, but flavored drinks may enhance the consumption of fluids. High-glucose solutions should not be used for hydration.
  • Appropriate clothing should be worn: protection from the sun is important, but clothing must allow adequate airflow and evaporation.
  • Acclimatization over a two-week period provides physiologic benefit for exertion in hot environments: Progressing from 15-20 minutes of exertion in a hot environment to 90 minutes of activity is recommended. Such preparation increases the amount of perspiration (i.e., cooling) for a given level of exertion, while decreasing the concentration of electrolytes in a given volume of sweat.
  • Individuals who regularly exert in hot environments should weigh after work or exercise. Persons losing 2 to 3% of body weight should drink enough fluid to regain their starting weight prior to their next exposure. Anyone losing 4% or more of body weight should avoid heat exposure for at least one day until rehydration has occurred.

Where is it Safe to Go When the Weather is Hot?

Most people head indoors when the weather gets too hot; however, some residents may not have the luxury of air conditioning in the home. Anyone can experience heat stroke symptoms when the body becomes overheated and cannot sufficiently cool through normal means of perspiration. So where does one go to stay cool when the temperature gets too hot?

  • Public library
  • Museum
  • Mall
  • Community Center
  • Water park
  • Movie theater
  • Lake or shaded beach (Avoid sunburn)
  • Indoor flea market

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are dangerous hyperthermia conditions that require immediate attention. Symptoms for heat exhaustion can usually be managed with swift treatment to cool down the body, but heat stroke is a medical emergency.


Keeping cool, hydrated, and out of direct sun or heat is the easiest way to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Some people do not have the benefit of air conditioning in the home and must travel to a public building or mall to take refuge from extreme heat. Learn to recognize heat stress before it escalates to a crisis situation. Knowing what to do in a heat stroke emergency may save a life.