You’re a person who likes participating in strenuous physical activity outdoors? Then listen up. Knowing that you’re at risk for exertional heat stroke—and being able to identify and treat the symptoms—could save your life.
You’ve probably heard of heat stroke before. It’s one of the most severe forms of hyperthermia. Advanced heat stroke can affect your vital functions and can even result in death.
We often hear about cases of non-exertional heat stroke, like the elderly getting ill during a heat wave. Exertional heat stroke, on the other hand, can occur in active people who are otherwise totally healthy.
What It Is
Heat stroke occurs when you lose more fluids than you’re taking in. Sometimes, this can happen over the course of a few hours, like on a rigorous hike on a sweltering summer day that has you sweating buckets. It can also happen slowly, over the course of a few days or even weeks.
What It Looks Like
Symptoms of heat stroke are serious. Someone with heat stroke might have hot, red, dry skin (from dilated skin vessels) and can register a core temperature up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit.
Vitals are affected: the pulse is quickened and breaths are rapid and shallow. The person might complain of a headache or demonstrate signs of confusion. They might also be acting weirdly and could be experiencing hallucinations.
Finally, at the point of heat stroke, their body will have stopped sweating.
When a person is exhibiting the symptoms of heat stroke, it means that their internal temperature control system has stopped working. Two main things are happening that are harming the body.
The first is the high fever, which can damage the brain and other internal organs. If a person has a temperature above 105 degrees Fahrenheit for over an hour, they’re at risk for permanent brain damage. If the victim is behaving strangely or hallucinating, this is a sign that their brain is being affected.
The second great risk is the loss of fluid within the body, which causes blood pressure to plummet. When your heart isn’t pumping blood effectively, your body is in trouble. Most people who die of heat stroke die because of circulatory failure.
What To Do
The obvious first step is to get help. Make no mistake about it: heat stroke is a medical emergency. Time is of the essence: get the victim in front of medical aid as soon as possible.
If you’re with someone suffering from heat stroke, do everything that you can to help lower the body temperature. Get them out of the sun and, if the person is conscious, encourage them to drink fluids—sports drinks are best, but water works too. Cool their body down with cold water. If there is a stream nearby, try to get them into the water. Otherwise, pat them down with extra water you have.
Use extra t‑shirts, maps, or anything you can find to fan the victim. If you have anything frozen, like an ice pack, tuck it underneath their armpits, under their neck, or along their groin.
It’s a fine balance: you want to get their temperature down, but not below 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or else the person becomes at risk for hypothermia. Check their temperature frequently (hint: when you’re done reading this, go toss a thermometer into your first aid kit) and be ready to perform CPR, if needed.
How to Prevent Heat Stroke
Drink up! When the temperature rises, make sure that you’re consuming enough fluid to replace any that you’re losing. Drink lots of fluids before you hit the trails. Bring plenty of water with you while hiking or doing outdoor activities, and drink at least every hour.
Keep clothes loose fitting, stick to the shade in the hottest hours of the day, and steer clear of caffeine and booze when you’re planning on getting active in the sun.
Finally, watch out for very hot days, and for high humidity. Humidity can keep sweat from evaporating. If the weather looks too extreme, don’t be afraid to reschedule your activity for a milder day.