Some people call it heat stroke while others call it sun stroke, but no matter how you break it down this is a condition that no one wants to experience. If your body temperature exceeds 104 degrees, and you start feeling lethargic and confused, it’s time to see a doctor.
While it may not be life-threatening in normal situations, heat stroke is something which affects thousands of Americans each year and is thought to be responsible for claiming up to 600 fatalities annually in the United States alone.
Heat stroke is considered to be a severe heat illness which results in high body temperatures and disorientation. Many people who spend too much time under the summer sun will also experience red or dry skin, headaches and in some cases, dizziness. A cold bath and plenty of water is the recommended course of action, but sometimes heat stroke requires more treatment.
Not just Sun
While the main cause for heat stroke is too much exposure to sun, that’s not the only cause. Too much physical exertion, especially in heat and humidity, can also lead to the same outcome. The most common risk factors for heat stroke are heat waves and high humidity, but specific drugs such as diuretics, beta blockers, or alcohol can also be a problem. While different from a fever in many ways, heat stroke is a type of hyperthermia.
We don’t want to state the obvious, but staying out of the sun for long periods of time is the best way to avoid heat stroke. Drinking plenty of water is also a good idea, but if you aren’t able to successfully prevent heat stroke, you may need to seek medical attention immediately. Fortunately, doctors and nurses have some tricks up their sleeves when it comes to treating heat stroke.
It stands to reason that the best treatment for heat stroke is to cool the person down as fast as possible. While many opt to go to the emergency room, others can treat the symptoms at home with some simple methods. Spraying the person with water is one option, while giving them an ice bath is also recommended. If the condition is too severe for that, a cold intravenous drip is the next step.
You can often tell that a person is about to suffer a heat stroke by looking for early warning signs, especially on a hot day. If it’s baking hot outside, but your friend isn’t sweating, that’s one sign. If they are acting strangely or feel dizzy, it’s time to get them out of the sun and into some shade, with plenty of cold water to drink.
The length of time that heat stroke lasts very much depends on whether or not the person suffering catches it in time. If a heat stroke victim’s body temperature can be brought below 104 degrees within 30 minutes, that person will usually make a quick recovery and start feeling better in no time. However, if the body temperature isn’t brought down quickly enough, a person could suffer from long-term cognitive problems.
While it’s still considered relatively rare, heat stroke does actually kill hundreds of people a year. In 2015, for example, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 335 Americans died from heat stroke. “Heat-related illness is all too common during the summer months and can lead to serious complications and even death,” Dr. Reginald Mason, total health lead for Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta said. “While certain people are at higher risk for heat-related illness, anyone of any age, especially if they exercise in hot weather, can suffer from this. It is important to recognize that even well-conditioned athletes can suffer severe consequences from overexertion in the heat.”
While death from heat stroke is rare, exertional heat stroke can strike at any time. Back in 2001, Korey Stringer, former offensive lineman for the Minnesota Vikings, collapsed after practicing on an unusually hot day. At the age of 27, Stringer died after experiencing a heat stroke even though he was taken to the hospital. His core body temperature exceeded 108.8 degrees. This is, however, an extreme case, as the elderly and the young are the most susceptible to heat stroke caused by hot sun.
People who are obese or in poor health generally are also more likely to be affected by heat stroke. Folks also affected include people who take regular blood pressure medication like beta-blockers. Another important factor at play is that humans need to sweat in hot weather, and if they don’t, it’s a big problem. When the body gets too hot, the heart needs to pump harder to cool things down. If something interrupts this process heat stroke may occur.
Heat waves are very dangerous for vulnerable people or those who work outdoors during the summer. In 1995, a massive heat wave in Chicago claimed more than 700 lives, with 39 percent of the victims having had prior heart conditions, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information, part of the National Institute of Health.
It’s time for some expert advice about the best ways to avoid heat stroke this summer. “Instead of mowing the lawn in the middle of the day when it’s 100 degrees, I suggest you do it at 8 a.m. or at night,” Dr. Mark J. Conroy, a self-confessed heat stroke expert due to years of bitter experience, advises. “Sports teams take this advice; many of them practice early in the day rather than in the middle of the day, when temperatures are highest.”
Dr. Conroy advises those who have no choice but to work outside alter their work-to-rest ratios depending on conditions. “If it’s hotter outside, you’d do more rest than physical activity.” But he also advises trying to gradually acclimatize oneself to the heat over a period of a few days, if possible.
Dr. Dustin J. Calhoun, assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, claims “hydration is the single most important aspect of heat stroke prevention since sweating is the most important mechanism our bodies have to get rid of heat.” As such, a quick snack while drinking water is also advised as one needs to consume electrolytes such as calcium, potassium and magnesium.
Meanwhile, Dr. Raymond L. Fowler, professor and chief of emergency medicine services at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, advises that outdoor workers wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing. “You’re better off wearing clothes that are loose enough to allow breezes to pass through,” he said. “The same goes for light-colored clothing, which absorbs less heat than dark-colored items. Wear a hat with a brim that shields the sun from your face.”
One of the single most important steps a person can take to avoid an episode of heat stroke is to take regular breaks throughout their work day. If one is working near to an air-conditioned building, it’s a good idea according to Conroy for them to take their breaks there to cool down. If that’s not an option, any area in the shade should suffice.
One example of Dr. Conroy’s commitment to helping people with heat stroke is when he attends the medical tent at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon every year. Conroy and his colleagues treat a handful of runners who inevitably suffer from heat stroke during the marathon, due to overheating. While most of the runners are fit, young athletes, some of them push themselves just a tad too far.
Not just Athletes
In his capacity as emergency medicine doctor at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, Conroy recently provided care for a woman in her 70s suffering from extreme heat stroke. She had suffered heat stroke just from sitting in the sun for 90 minutes. The fact that she was obese was also a contributing factor. These two examples illustrate the contrast between heat stroke for the young and fit versus for the old and obese.
When it comes to the otherwise healthy marathon runners, according to Conroy, their symptoms of heat stroke developed over the course of several hours and were due to physical activity and overexertion. “If you’re out exercising at the wrong time of day or have some of the risk factors, you can develop heat stroke in 20 or 30 minutes,” he said.
Conroy also pointed out that people like the woman in her 70s who suffered heat stroke from sitting in the sun for an hour are better off staying indoors. “You don’t have to be out exercising for two hours; it can happen pretty quickly if you’re vulnerable to heat stroke and shouldn’t be out in 100-degree weather,” he said. He later added that obesity and high blood pressure were also the main culprits in this case.
When all’s said and done there is nothing more useful than common sense when it comes to staying safe in the sun and avoiding heat stroke. For people who live in hot climates, this can be even more challenging, especially if that climate is very humid. Erring on the side of caution is recommended when it comes to staying safe in the sun and enjoying the summer.