Health Topics Information

Heat Stroke is No Joke: Know the Symptoms

Heat Stroke is No Joke: Know the Symptoms

Summer is time for fun in the sun, but hot days can turn dangerous quickly. Heat-related conditions send thousands of people to emergency departments each summer, and needless tragedies occur when children and pets are left inside hot vehicles. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke happen when you’re exposed to excessive heat and the body absorbs more heat than it can release.

While heat exhaustion is serious, heat stroke is a dangerous, potentially deadly condition that occurs when the body’s core temperature rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Anyone can experience either condition, but people most at risk include infants and people age 65 and older because their bodies can have difficulty acclimating to excessive heat. Some medications and antidepressants can affect your ability to sweat and regulate body temperature. Working or playing sports outdoors, lacking access to air conditioning, being obese and drinking alcohol can also put you at a higher risk for heat-related illness.

It’s important to recognize symptoms because, without quick action, heat stroke can cause vital organs including the brain to swell and result in permanent damage. Untreated, heat stroke can be fatal.

While similar, there are some key differences between these two heat-related conditions. With heat exhaustion, you’ll notice heavy sweating, cold, pale or clammy skin and a fast, weak pulse. With heat stroke, you’ll have hot, red, dry or damp skin and a fast, strong pulse as your body temperature reaches 103 degrees F or higher. Both conditions can cause headache, nausea and dizziness, and the possibility of passing out. Heat exhaustion may cause you to feel tired or weak and faint; heat stroke may cause you to vomit, become confused, lose consciousness or have a seizure.

For heat exhaustion, you should move to a cool place, sip water, loosen your clothes, put wet towels on your body or take a cool bath. Get medical help right away if you are on a low-sodium diet, have heart problems or have cramps that last more than an hour.

With heat stroke, you should always call 911 immediately because this is a medical emergency. Until help arrives, move the person to a cool place and apply cool towels or get into a cool bath.

Practicing good habits can prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke from occurring.
Things to do every summer:

  • Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water, not soft drinks or alcoholic beverages
  • Limit amount of time spent in the sun
  • Avoid being outside during the hottest parts of the day
  • Pay close attention to young children and the elderly
  • Never leave people or pets in a parked car, for any amount of time
  • Increase hydration while playing sports, and take breaks to cool off in the shade

By taking these precautions, and keeping an eye on loved ones, you can safely enjoy the hot days of summer.

Scot Mickelson, MD


(Dr. Scot Mickelson is a family physician at CHI St. Alexius Health Century Family Clinic.)