Heatstroke: Signs, Symptoms, and When to Get Medical Treatment

heatstroke symptoms

Every year, at least 20 in 100,000 people get heatstroke, which causes between 240 and 833 deaths in the US annually. It is a serious heat-related illness that requires immediate medical attention.

With summer upon us and the temperatures in parts of Texas already reaching above 100 F, you need to be aware of how the heat affects you, your children, and your older loved ones. Read on to learn what heatstroke is, how can you identify it, and what can you do if you think someone is suffering from heatstroke.

Defining Heatstroke

Heatstroke is also called sunstroke. It’s a severe form of hyperthermia, which is when the body overheats. The overheating might be from prolonged exposure or physical exertion in high temperatures and can occur if the body’s core temperature reaches 104 F and above. 

In the right conditions, your core body temperature can rise to 106 F in 10 to 15 minutes. Heatstroke is the most severe form of heat injury and is most commonly seen during the summer months. 

Heatstroke can be fatal or cause severe organ damage or neurological dysfunction. It requires emergency treatment.

Signs and Symptoms of Heatstroke

The defining symptom of heatstroke is a high body temperature. Technically, your rectal temperature must reach 104 F.

Other symptoms include:

  • High or low blood pressure
  • Altered mental status or behavior
  • Alterations in sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Flushed skin
  • Rapid breathing 
  • Racing heart
  • Headache
  • Fainting 
  • Low urine output 

Someone with heatstroke can act confused, agitated, or irritable. They may have slurred speech, problems with movement and coordination, seizures, delirium, loss of consciousness, or coma.

The skin can feel hot and dry to the touch, known as anhidrosis, which is more typical of heatstroke due to exposure without exertion. The skin might be flushed or very pale. Some people sweat profusely, which is more common in heatstroke from excessive exertion in the heat.

Some people develop rapid breathing with “crackles,” a gurgling or bubbling sound in the lungs. Urine becomes very dark or stops altogether.

Do you knows the signs of severe dehydration? Check out our blog post on dehydration symptoms and treatment.

Risk Factors that Make Someone Susceptible to Heatstroke

Anyone can develop heatstroke, but some factors increase the risk.

Age and Sex

Being male is a factor, as is age. The very young and very old cannot cope well with extreme heat because of differences in the central nervous system.

The very young have underdeveloped central nervous systems, while those over 65 begin to experience deterioration. Both groups have difficulty staying hydrated, increasing the risk of heat-related injury, including heatstroke. 

Heat Index

A high heat index can make it easier for someone to succumb to heatstroke. The heat index indicates how hot it “feels” outdoors when the humidity and temperature are both high. A heat index higher than 91 F is a signal for heatstroke prevention efforts. High humidity makes your sweat evaporate faster, you lose more fluids more quickly, and you have difficulty keeping cool.

Physical Exertion

Intense physical exertion, like playing sports or training for the military, combined with poor hydration can cause heatstroke. Sudden exposure to hot weather can do the same. If you are staying somewhere with a hotter climate than you’re used to, it can take weeks to acclimate to higher temperatures. 

Lack of A/C

Lack of air conditioning is another risk factor for heatstroke. A fan can help, but air conditioning is a more effective way to cool down and lower the humidity during sustained hot weather.

Medications and Chronic Illness

Certain medications can affect your body’s ability to remain hydrated and respond appropriately to heat, including:

  • Vasoconstrictors, which narrow the blood vessels to maintain blood pressure
  • Beta-blockers that block adrenaline
  • Diuretics, which rid the body of water and sodium to treat high blood pressure
  • Anti-depressants and anti-psychotics

Some health conditions make it easier to develop heatstroke, including:

  • Obesity 
  • High fever 
  • Sedentary living or poor physical conditioning
  • Chronic illness
  • A history of heatstroke

People with heart or lung disease, cystic fibrosis, sleep disorders, blood vessel problems, and thyroid disease can all develop heatstroke more quickly. If you or your loved ones have any of these medical conditions, take measures to prevent heatstroke during the hotter months.

Should you visit an emergency room or urgent care facility? What is the difference? Read more here.

When to Get Medical Treatment

Make no mistake: heatstroke is a serious condition requiring immediate medical attention. If you believe someone has heatstroke, move them into the shade or indoors and call 911 or your local emergency number.

While waiting for help to arrive, you want to do what you can to bring the person’s body temperate down. Remove any excess clothing and place the individual in a cool tub of water or an ice bath if possible. Spray them with a hose or run a fan over them as you mist them with water. Sponge with cool water or place cold or ice packs around the body. Put wet towels on the head, neck, armpits, and groin. Any of these first-aid treatments can help the person’s body cool down.

Once the patient reaches the emergency room, the healthcare professionals review the symptoms, perform a physical exam, and take the person’s temperature. They might order blood tests, urinalysis, a chest X-ray, or an EKG. 

Once they diagnose heatstroke, the emergency room staff may provide one or more of the following treatments:

  • Cooled IV fluids
  • A cooling blanket
  • An ice bath
  • Medication to prevent seizures
  • Supplemental oxygen
  • A cold-water lavage

A cold-water lavage involves inserting a catheter into the throat or rectum and filling the body’s cavities with cold water until the body temperature drops to at least 102 F. Depending on the severity of the symptoms, the patient may remain in the hospital to monitor and treat organ damage.

Family First ER Provides Expert Care for Heatstroke Victims

Texas is hot and humid in the summer. Heatstroke is always a possibility. We know the signs and symptoms of heatstroke and have the tools to treat it.

You need to know the location of the nearest medical facility in case of any emergency. Family First ER is staffed with medical professionals that can diagnose and treat most medical emergencies, including heatstroke.

Contact us today to learn more about our emergency services for people suffering from heatstroke.