Tips to Live By

Heat Safety & Heat Stroke: What You Need to Know During a Heat Wave

June 27, 2023 - Katie McCallum

When you live in city where the summers are always hot, it can be easy to disregard the heat and humidity while making outdoor plans.

But, right now, it's excessively hot. Like, brush-up-on-heat-safety-basics hot.

“We’re seeing a higher-than-average number of ER visits for heat-related illnesses across our hospitals right now,” says Dr. Neil Gandhi, emergency medicine physician at Houston Methodist. “Everything from dehydration and heat cramps to heat exhaustion and heat stroke, we usually don’t see this many cases this early in the summer.”

Heat stroke, also referred to as sun stroke, is when a person's body overheats as a result of exposure to high temperatures. When it's particularly hot outside, your body temperature can rise faster than your body's cooling mechanisms (such as sweating) are able to lower it. In addition, heat that's accompanied by high humidity (above 75%) can reduce the effect sweat has on lowering your body temperature.

“With the triple digit temperatures, people are becoming very dehydrated very quickly,” Dr. Gandhi adds. “Dehydration increases the risk of developing heat exhaustion. And untreated heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which is a medical emergency.”

And, when it's really hot outside, don’t assume you have to be working or exercising in the heat for your safety to be at risk.

Here's what you need to know about heat stroke and how to stay safe when it’s really hot outside.

The signs and symptoms of heat illness

Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat illness, but knowing the signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion — and taking quick action to counteract either issue — can help prevent heat stroke altogether.

“You may start to feel lightheaded and have cold, clammy skin. You may have a headache and your mouth might feel dry,” says Dr. Gandhi. “Stop what you’re doing, get out of the heat as best you can and rehydrate.”

If you don’t, heat stroke risk increases.

Heat stroke symptoms include:

  • A body temperature of 103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Skin that's red and hot
  • Rapid pulse
  • Headache
  • Dizziness and nausea
  • Sudden confusion or hallucinations
  • Fainting

Heat stroke is an emergency requiring immediate medical attention

The high body temperature associated with heat stroke can damage your brain, heart, kidneys, muscles and other organs. The longer heat stroke is left untreated, the more damage can be done to these vital organs — increasing the risk of long-term complications and even death.

This means heat stroke is a medical emergency. If you or someone you love is showing signs of heat stroke, call 911 immediately.

While waiting for help to arrive, try to cool the person down by:

  • Moving them into the shade or air conditioning
  • Loosening or removing clothing
  • Applying ice packs or wet towels to armpits and groin

Anyone can develop heat stroke, but some factors increase a person's risk

The factors that can put a person at higher risk of heat stroke include:

  • Age, either being very young or old
  • Being dehydrated
  • Being overweight
  • Working or exercising outdoors
  • Lacking air conditioning
  • Medical conditions, including diabetes, heart disease and alcohol abuse
  • Medications, such as diuretics (rid your body of water and sodium), beta blockers (reduce your blood pressure) and antidepressants
  • Not being acclimated to high heat

“Right now, we’re seeing heat illness mostly occurring to people over the age of 65,” adds Dr. Gandhi. “Certain medicines can also make a person more sensitive to the heat. Continue taking these medications, but be sure to stay hydrated and seek shade whenever possible.”

Never stop taking a medication without first consulting your doctor.

Heat stroke is preventable

Given its serious nature, it's important to take steps to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke from happening altogether.

Tips for preventing heat stroke:

  • Stay hydrated
  • Avoid being in a parked car
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing outdoors
  • Exercise indoors or early in the morning
  • Take frequent "cool down" breaks in the shade if you work outdoors
  • Apply (and reapply) sunscreen
  • Limit alcohol while in the heat
  • Swap outdoor activities for indoor ones, especially at the hottest parts of the day
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Categories: Tips to Live By