Tips to Live By

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

July 15, 2020 - Katie McCallum

When you live in city where the summers are always hot, a heat warning or advisory may not seem like a big deal. But, right now, it's excessively hot. Like, brush-up-on-heat-safety-basics hot.

Heat stroke, also referred to as sun stroke, is when a person's body overheats as a result of exposure to hot weather. 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.

In most cases, heat stroke results from exercising outside in the heat without proper hydration. But, when it's really hot outside, a person doesn't have to be exercising to develop heat stroke.

Here's what you need to know about heat stroke and staying safe in the heat during a heat wave.

The signs and symptoms of heat stroke

According to the CDC, the most common symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • A body temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, as measured by a rectal thermometer
  • Sudden confusion or hallucinations
  • Difficulty walking
  • Seizures
  • Fainting

In addition, people suffering heat stroke may also experience racing heart rate, rapid breathing, overly warm skin or skin redness, vomiting or diarrhea, muscle cramps and weakness, and throbbing headaches.

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 him or her into the shade or air conditioning
  • Removing clothing
  • Applying wet towels to the head, neck, armpits and groin or soaking in a cool bath

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

Anyone is at risk for heat stroke, but some factors may put a person at higher risk, including:

  • 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

Heat stroke is preventable

First of all, a person's risk of experiencing heat stroke is predictable. As soon as your local officials issue a heat alert, especially if it's a heat advisory, that's your cue to take extra precautions to stay safe outdoors.

Given the serious nature of heat stroke, it's important to take steps to prevent 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
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