What to Know about Heat Stroke This Summer
Heat stoke is a severe form of hyperthermia. Hyperthermia refers to a variety of heat-related conditions the body goes through when a person’s internal temperature rises to dangerous levels. This condition is the opposite of hypothermia. Our bodies have a heat regulation system, which balance out heat production and heat loss. This keeps us functioning normally.
What Is Hyperthermia?
Hyperthermia occurs when the body temperature rises due to external factors, such as the sun or physical activity, not internal factors, such as a fever. Levels of hyperthermia occur at a body temperature of 100.4°F (38°C) or more, and severe hyperthermia occurs at more than 104°F (40°C). Hyperthermia is when the body can no longer release enough heat to maintain a normal temperature. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur as the body begins to shut down.
How Does the Body Regulate Temperature?
A small part of the brain, the hypothalamus, works as our own personal thermostat by regulating our core temperature. The optimal core body temperature lies between one to two degrees of 98.6°F. The hypothalamus works with the sweat glands, blood vessels, and skin to monitor our internal heating and cooling systems. It also balances body fluids, releases chemicals and hormones, and maintains salt concentrations. When heat activates the sweat glands, they bring water and salt from the skin’s dermis to the surface as sweat. As sweat evaporates, the body cools. Blood vessels can expand and contract to move blood and heat closer or further from the skin. This is why people become flushed when they become hot.
Symptoms of Hyperthermia
As you sweat, your body loses electrolytes and fluids and become dehydrated. The body loses its ability to cool itself down after severe dehydration of these fluids. Signs of heat exhaustion can include:
- exhaustion and weakness
- flushed appearance
- nausea and vomiting
- feeling light headed or dizzy
- impaired concentration
- excessive sweating
- muscle cramps
- extreme thirst
Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which can lead to extreme complications. Children and adults over 65 are specially susceptible due to a weaker immune system. Heat stroke typically occurs when the body is more than 104°F (40°C), depending on the individual’s average body temperature. The early symptoms of heat stroke mimic those for heat exhaustion. Heavy breathing, blurry vision, and a quickened or weakened pulse are also signs. If left untreated, heat stroke can result in organ failure, seizure, coma, and even death. Rhabdomyolysis can also occur, which is when damaged skeletal muscle cells release proteins which damage the kidneys.
Treating Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
People are most at risk for becoming overheated during physical exertion in a warm, humid environment. Humidity makes it more difficult for sweat to evaporate and properly cool the body. If a person suspects they may be showing signs of hyperthermia, they should stop what they are doing and move to a cool, shaded, well-ventilated area. Some things you can do to help in the moderate stages are:
- moving to a cool, shaded area or indoors
- ceasing activity and lying/sitting down
- drinking cool water
- taking a cool shower
- fanning yourself or placing yourself in front of cold air flow
- using a cool wet cloth on forehead and neck
- placing ice packs under the arms
Severe hyperthermia can lead to hospitalization for days. Seek medical attention if general symptoms do not improve after 30 minutes, or immediately if heat stroke is suspected.
Enjoy your summer safely!
Remember, children and seniors are more at risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Stay aware of the signs of hyperthermia when out in the sun to keep you and your loved ones safe.
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