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Heatstroke and other warm weather dangers: symptoms and relief

city experiencing heatwave th could lead to heatstroke
August 2, 2018 (Updated: August 3, 2021)
Lily Moran

With record-breaking heat upon us, the midday sun can be dangerous, even fatal. Here’s how to be sure your summer fun isn’t interrupted by a trip to the emergency room.

Don’t shun the sun

Let’s start by reminding ourselves that the sun isn’t our enemy—though sunscreen makers sure want you to think that. We don’t have to shun the sun.  In fact, we need it to create the vitamin D that is absolutely essential to every cell in a healthy body.

Ignorance and denial are the enemies.  Our bodies give us plenty of signals that the going’s getting too hot. Damage control is a simple matter of paying attention and doing the right thing.

Hot, hotter, hottest—symptoms, outcomes, and prevention

Sun-related problems come in three main types, with increasingly dangerous consequences. You might not be at risk of any of them, but please familiarize yourself with symptoms and treatments for each type. The next symptoms you see might be affecting a family member or friend—or even a nearby sun lover.  You don’t want to be uninformed.

The least dangerous type of heat threat is heat cramps. These involuntary muscle spasms are easy to recognize because they’re very painful—often more intense and more prolonged than typical nighttime leg cramps. The cause is usually heavy exertion or exercise in hot environments—not a wise choice to begin with.

Heat cramps can hit any muscle group—but it’s typically calves, arms, abdominal wall, and back. Fluid and electrolyte loss are often contributing factors.

If you suspect heat cramps:

  • Rest briefly and cool down
  • Drink clear juice or an electrolyte-containing sports drink
  • Practice gentle, range-of-motion stretching and gentle massage of the affected muscle group
  • Don’t resume strenuous activity for several hours or longer after heat cramps go away
  • Call your doctor if your cramps don’t go away within one hour or so

Heat exhaustion is a major step closer to danger. Without prompt treatment, it can put you on the path to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition. Telltale symptoms can include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse, as your body fights to keep from overheating.

As with heat cramps, heat exhaustion is most often the result of bad judgment. When it’s extremely hot and humid, who thinks strenuous physical activity is a great idea?

Obviously, heat exhaustion is preventable—don’t push your body, and your luck, when the weather is swamp-like. And fortunately, heat exhaustion subsides on its own when the heavy activity stops and some common sense corrective action is taken:

  • Rest in a cool place. An air-conditioned building is best, but at the very least, find a shady spot or sit in front of a fan. Rest on your back with your legs elevated higher than your heart level.
  • Drink cool fluids. But not a cold beer. Alcoholic beverages are just asking for dehydration. Water or sports drinks—only.
  • Try cooling measures. If they’re available, take a cool shower or bath, or put towels soaked in cool water on your skin. If you’re outdoors and not near shelter, soaking in a cool pond or stream can help bring your temperature down.
  • Loosen clothing. Remove any unnecessary clothing and make sure your clothes are lightweight and nonbinding.

If you don’t begin to feel better within one hour of using these treatment measures, seek prompt medical attention.

Heatstroke is the ultimate bad outcome on a hot day. Even if it doesn’t kill you, you can end up with brain or other organ damage—liver, kidneys, lungs, and heart.

The combination of high temperature and insufficient hydration can push your body temperature to more than 105 degrees.  That’s serious fever territory, where none of your protective mechanisms operate.  They’re literally burned out, and, as they crash, they bring down organs with them.

Heat stroke can begin as heat cramps or heat exhaustion. That’s in the lucky cases where those milder conditions sound the alarm and interventions are put into play. In the worst-case scenario, it also can wreak 100 percent havoc—without warning.

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Who’s at risk for heatstroke?

The typical heatstroke victim is:

  • Older than 50
  • Sedentary
  • Without air-conditioning
  • Insufficiently hydrated

When someone with that profile goes through 2–3 days of extreme heat exposure, there’s your typical victim.

Other risk factors include those with:

  • Diabetes
  • Heart, lung, or kidney disease
  • Obesity or underweight
  • High blood pressure
  • Alcoholism
  • Sunburn and conditions that cause fever
  • Medications that increase the risk of heatstroke. Ask your doctor if yours are among them.

A subset of heatstroke is known as exertional heatstroke. It strikes more unexpectedly and does not spare healthy, active people. Indeed, sadly, it’s the second leading cause of death in young athletes, and isn’t uncommon among military recruits and factory workers.

Heatstroke symptoms

It’s essential that you know the typical symptoms of heatstroke. If you’re out in the heat, be wary if you or someone you’re with experiences:

  • Dizziness, light-headedness, fainting
  • Throbbing headache
  • Red, hot, dry skin with no sweating
  • Muscle weakness or cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat, either strong or weak
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Confusion, disorientation, or staggering
  • Seizures, unconsciousness, or coma

Treating heatstroke

If you suspect someone has had a heatstroke, delay can be fatal. Call 911 immediately or get that person straight to a hospital.

If help is on the way, here are some immediate interventions you can perform, depending on location:

  • Move the person to a cooler space—air-conditioned, if possible, or anywhere cooler or shadier
  • Remove unnecessary clothing
  • If possible, take the person’s temperature

If the temperature is greater than 105 degrees, the goal is to cool it down to 101–102 degrees. If a thermometer isn’t handy, initiate first aid anyway. If it turns out not to be heatstroke, no harm done. If it’s heatstroke, it could be a lifesaver.

You should also, if possible:

  • Fan the person while wetting his or her skin with water
  • Apply ice packs to the victim’s armpits, groin, neck, and back, where blood vessels are close to the skin
  • Immerse the patient in a shower or tub of cool water or an ice bath

Preventing heatstroke

When it’s very hot, heat wave or not, it’s best to stay in an air-cooled or air-conditioned environment—ideally, your own home.

If your home has no fans or air conditioning:

  • Spend the hottest part of the day somewhere cool.
  • Open windows at night and close your blinds during the day to retain the night’s cooler air.
  • Cool off under a wet towel and spray cool water on your skin.
  • Choose foods you can grill or eat cold—don’t bake or boil.
  • Don’t eat large or protein-rich meals—they warm your body from within.
  • Avoid dehydrating alcohol and caffeine.

If you go outdoors:

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Spend time in air-conditioned public buildings—the mall, a museum or library, or in cooling centers
  • Use a sunscreen of SPF 30 or more.
  • Drink extra fluids, even if you’re not thirsty.

Assuming all goes well, many people recovering from heatstroke are more sensitive to high temperatures for a while. So survivors should avoid hot weather and heavy exercise until their doctor says it’s safe to resume normal activities.

Stay cool, everyone, and take good care.


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