How to identify a heat stroke? Symptoms and how to act

Staying in an extremely hot environment for a long time or high-intensity physical exercise can be the direct cause of heat stroke, this usually occurs due to exposure to high temperatures for a long period of time. Heat stroke is a critical condition that must be treated as an emergency. If not treated immediately, it can cause damage to various internal organs and tissues in our body: the muscles, heart, kidneys, and brain can be significantly affected. The longer treatment is delayed, the greater the risk of serious complications or death.

In the great heat wave that occurred in 2003, 6,600 deaths were recorded in Spain due to high temperatures; of these: 140 died as a direct consequence of heat stroke, the other victims were due to aggravation of previous pathologies. In this article we explain the symptoms and possible long-term effects of heat stroke. Also included is information on how to identify and prevent heat stroke.

What is a heat stroke?

Heat stroke is the most serious form of high temperature injury.. If you suspect someone has suffered from heat stroke, call 911 immediately, as this is considered a serious medical emergency. In addition, first aid must be provided until the medical service arrives. Heat stroke comes from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, usually occurring in conjunction with dehydration.

This occurs when the body’s temperature control system stops working properly, leading to complications involving the central nervous system. Symptoms of heat stroke include nausea, seizures, confusion, disorientation, and loss of consciousness or coma. The medical definition of heat stroke is a core body temperature above 40 degrees, although some patients show symptoms when their body temperature is slightly elevated.

Heatstroke often occurs as the last consequence of a series of less serious injuries that occur from heat, such as heat cramps, blackouts, and exhaustion. Although, sometimes it can appear directly, without any of the previous manifestations. Even without prior signs of heat injury, a person can experience heat stroke.. This is because it is a progression of other heat related illnesses such as heat cramps and heat exhaustion.

This medical emergency can cause damage to different internal organs and tissues of our body, frequently the muscles, kidneys, heart and brain suffer injuries due to high temperatures. In the most severe cases, heat stroke can be fatal, leading to death. Although the risk of heat stroke is especially high in the elderly, it can also occur in young people, who are exposed to high temperatures for a long time or to intense exercise in a hot place. Good physical condition does not prevent heat stroke and this frequently occurs in trained athletes when they are subjected to very hot environments. To avoid it, apart from not exposing yourself to high temperatures, it is important to pay close attention to hydration and drink plenty of water during sports. .


How to recognize a heat stroke?

The first thing to recognize a heat stroke is to differentiate it from heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion occurs when a person loses a significant amount of water and salts due to increased body temperature. The affected person presents symptoms of fatigue, weakness and muscle cramps.

Instead, we speak of heat stroke, when the regulatory mechanism can no longer maintain the correct internal temperature and stops working, with fatal consequences for the various internal organs. This can happen when the body’s temperature rises to dangerous levels. Among the most common symptoms of heat stroke are:

  • Elevated temperature: the person has a much higher body temperature than normal. A body temperature above 40 degrees Celsius, measured using a rectal thermometer, is the most distinctive sign of heat stroke.
  • Changes in mental function: Conditions caused by heat may include confusion, seizures in children, delirium, irritability, slurred speech, and comas in the most severe cases.
  • Sweating disturbance: due to heat stroke, the skin normally feels hot and dry. Alternatively, if the sweat changes occur during physical exertion: the skin will feel damp rather than dry.
  • vomiting: The desire to vomit, nausea and stomach discomfort frequently occur as a result of heat stroke.
  • skin changes: due to the heat the body heats up and as a consequence the skin can become red.
  • increase heart rate: The body tries to cool itself in response to exposure to high temperatures. Consequently, the heart is put under great stress and its beating rate increases.
  • Headache: People who have suffered a heat stroke frequently report having felt a throbbing headache.
  • increased breathing: During heat stroke, the rate of breathing may increase and become shallow.
  • Muscle weakness or cramps: As we have said, heat stroke is a progressive state, before arriving other symptoms may appear due to high temperatures, frequently people suffer from muscle weakness and cramps.

How to act against a heat stroke?

Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency and requires the immediate administration of first aid by paramedical specialists.. Hesitating to get medical help can endanger the life of a person displaying symptoms of heat stroke. Therefore, immediately taking the patient to the nearest hospital or calling 911 is the main and first measure to take.

While waiting, it is important to start applying first aid while paramedics arrive, this can include wet compresses, a cold bath or refreshing drinks. Although, any type of alcoholic beverage should be avoided, as it causes dehydration. The first thing is to move the affected person to a place out of the hot environment and try to cool them down, it is best to go to a place with air conditioning; however, if this is not possible, at least find a cool, shady area. Also, remove any unnecessary clothing worn by the injured person.

It is better to use a thermometer to check the person’s body temperature. If one is not available, first aid can be started to bring the body temperature down to between 39 and 38 degrees Celsius. Cooling strategies may include the following methods. Spray the patient with water from a garden hose or a sponge to moisten the patient’s skin. Then blow air over them to keep them cool. By spraying cold water on the skin and blowing hot air over it, evaporation can occur. This effect allows the skin to cool down.

Cooling the patient’s groin, neck, armpits and back instantly reduces body temperature. This is because these areas have a large number of blood vessels close to the skin and it allows the body temperature to drop rapidly by reducing the temperature of the blood. As an alternative to cooling the patient, it can be used and the person immersed in a cold shower or bath.

The ice bath can help combat heat stroke in certain cases. If the heat stroke is due to high-intensity physical exercise, it is known as exertional heat stroke. If the person is young and has no other health problems, an ice bath can be used. This treatment is only applicable to healthy and young people; It is dangerous to use ice on the elderly, young children, people with chronic illnesses, and anyone whose heat stroke is not a result of vigorous exercise.

In case of delay of qualified personnel, the emergency service must provide further instructions to combat heat stroke and help the person. Normally, upon arrival at the hospital, intravenous electrolyte replacement and rehydration are the first step to take when a patient is admitted due to heat stroke. Post-treatment of heat stroke is primarily focused on reducing the patient’s temperature and preventing further complications. In addition to administering cold treatments, doctors may give patients benzodiazepines. These muscle relaxants can be given in cases where the body temperature does not drop using cooling methods, as they help reduce shivering.


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