Heatstroke: Understanding the Risks and Staying Safe in the Scorching Heat

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Heatstroke is considered the most serious and life-threatening heat-related condition. If not attended immediately, it can cause damage to internal organs and the brain. Heatstroke is prevalent in summer or during hot weather, and it’s caused by a variety of reasons including prolonged exposure to heat and dehydration.

Since this condition is serious and needs immediate medical attention, it’s important to know its causes, signs, and prevention tips. Read on to learn more about heatstroke, how to spot it, and apply first aid to it when the need arises.

Types of Heatstroke

Before we jump on to the causes of heatstroke, first let’s discuss the types of heatstroke present. There are 2 types of heatstroke, namely:

  1. Non-exertional - This is referred to as the classic type of heatstroke and is primarily caused by age and existing health conditions. Non-exertional heatstroke is also more common in people over 50.
  2. Exertional - Unlike non-exertional heatstroke, this type is caused by engaging in heavy and strenuous activities under extreme heat conditions.

What are the Causes?

Heat exhaustion is what you call a less severe heat-related condition and usually doesn’t require hospitalization. However, if heat exhaustion isn’t addressed, it might progress to heatstroke.

Heatstroke in simple terms is caused by an abnormal rise in core body temperature. A certain part of our brain called the hypothalamus is responsible for regulating your core temperature. However, when we get exposed to extreme heat or do strenuous activities under hot conditions, our core body temperature may rise at an abnormal level causing heatstroke.

Though heatstroke can affect people of all ages, it’s usually common in older adults. It can also be caused by other risk factors such as:

  • Dehydration - Our bodily fluids play a vital role in cooling down our body during hot conditions. Not drinking enough fluids may affect the body’s ability to cool down which eventually causes heatstroke.
  • Alcohol drinking - Drinking alcohol can increase the body’s temperature and may affect the body’s natural ability to cool down. According to UAB Medicine, alcohol drinking can indeed increase the risk of dehydration if taken excessively.
  • Wearing thick clothing - Sweating is one of the ways our body does to cool down. Wearing thick and tight-fitting clothing prevents sweat to evaporate from the body, causing core body heat to increase.
  • Age - Infants and seniors are more susceptible to heatstroke. This is because, in infants, their central nervous system is not yet mature, making it hard for their bodies to cool down. On the other hand, seniors go through a developmental decline in their bodily functions including the nervous system and the ability to store fluid reserves. That’s why they are more prone to dehydration and heat-related conditions.
  • Medications - The nature of medications such as diuretics, antidepressants, beta-blockers, or vasoconstrictors may make it hard for your body to stay hydrated and store fluid reserves. This will then increase your risk of heatstroke.
  • Fever - Having a fever is one of the causes of dehydration especially if it’s associated with vomiting and diarrhea. Thus, without enough fluids in the body, it may cause heatstroke and other heat-related conditions.
  • Existing health conditions - Health conditions such as heart disease and respiratory problems can also easily trigger heatstroke when exposed to heat. This goes the same with obese and physically inactive people.
  • Exposure to hot weather - Even if you don’t have existing medical conditions, being exposed to hot weather within prolonged periods can cause heatstroke especially if you don’t have enough fluids in your body.
  • Exertion under hot weather conditions - Doing heavy work under extreme heat can trigger an exertional type of heatstroke.
  • Lack of ventilation/airconditioning - Being trapped in a closed car, or tight, isolated places where there’s no ventilation is another major culprit of heatstroke.

What are the Signs of Heatstroke?

Heatstroke is a serious condition that needs immediate medical help. If you notice someone has heatstroke, call 911 immediately. To do that, watch out for its signs and symptoms such as:

  • Body temperature that reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celcius
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Increased heart rate
  • Flushed skin
  • Shallow and rapid breathing
  • Weak muscles
  • Abnormal sweating (Skin becomes dry, hot, and sometimes moist)
  • Behavioral changes (Confusion, seizures, irritability)
  • Nausea with or without vomiting
  • Fainting or unconsciousness
What to Do When You or Someone Has Heatstroke?

If you notice someone exhibiting the signs of heatstroke, the first thing to do is to call an ambulance, and then while waiting, apply first-aid procedures to cool down the person. First aid procedures include:

  • Transfer them to a cool, shady, and ventilated place.
  • Put ice packs on areas of the body where blood vessels are abundant like the armpits, groin, and neck.
  • Let them drink fluids containing electrolytes like sports drinks.
  • Remove thick and tight-fitting clothing
  • Soak the patient in cool water.
  • Do the evaporative cooling technique wherein you will mist the patient’s body with cool water while fan airing him/her.
  • Monitor the patient’s breathing.

Note: It’s also crucial not to give the patient medications such as acetaminophen or aspirin as it may worsen the patient’s condition.

Heatstrokes can be treated in the hospital by:

  • Soaking in an ice bath
  • Anti-seizure medications
  • Cooled intravenous fluids
  • Cooling blanket
  • Oxygen
Prevention Tips to Keep in Mind

Heatstrokes are prevalent during summer or when the heat index is very high. You don’t have to wait for you or a loved one to have heatstroke, especially during hot weather, because there are several tips you can do to avoid it:

  • Wear light, comfortable, and loose-fitting clothes, especially during hot weather.
  • Drink lots of fluids, preferably water or sports drink when you are doing heavy or strenuous activities under extreme heat conditions. Seniors should also drink extra fluids as they are more prone to dehydration.
  • Avoid going outdoors during hours of intense heat (usually at 12 noon). Do your errands early in the morning or in the afternoons instead.
  • Be extra cautious when working out or exercising in hot weather conditions. According to WebMD, people should drink at least 24 ounces of water an hour or two before working out and make sure to drink 8 ounces every 20 minutes during a workout to avoid dehydration.
  • Don’t leave pets or children inside unventilated places, especially in cars.
  • Always use sunblocks or SPF 15 lotions when going outdoors under the sun to help your body cool down and avoid the risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.


Heatstroke is a serious condition that requires immediate action and treatment, that’s why it’s important to know its symptoms as well as the things one must do when the need arises.

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