Heat Stroke is No Joke
I remember my mother telling me to wear a hat in the sun or I’d get heatstroke, a warning I disregarded the same way I dismissed her admonition that if I didn’t get out of the pool, I’d surely catch pneumonia. Heatstroke wasn’t on my radar then, nor in all the years since. Until recently, I barely realized that it’s a condition with clinical validity. But then temperatures started rising to 117 degrees for days in a row, and I got a dizzy spell after walking around outside on one of those days, and my mother’s words came back to me. I learned that in fact, heatstroke can kill its victims, and these days, heatstroke is a threat that bears knowing something about.
A report just published in PLOS Medicine predicts a startling spike in the number of deaths from heatstroke and heat-related disorders across the globe in the coming years.1 The report relies on a model that shows future heatwaves will be more frequent and last much longer than they do now. That said, according to the report, the impact of rising temperatures on the incidence of heatstroke will vary by location. Tropical and semi-tropical regions of the world (Brazil, Columbia, and the Philippines, for instance) will experience the most severe ramifications, with projections showing a 2000-percent increase in heat-related deaths over the next 62 years.2 In Australia, heatwave related-deaths are projected to be up by 471-percent in that same time period.
Currently, about one out of every million people dies from heat-related problems each year in the US.3 The most frequent victims are over the age of 65, but heatstroke also is a leading cause of death among young athletes and the number one cause of sports-related deaths during summer months.4 Of course, not all cases of overexposure to heat result in death, but of those that don’t, many cases nevertheless require hospitalization. Again, the incidence is rapidly rising as locales that rarely saw 90-degree days in summer a few decades ago now regularly report temperatures well above 100 degrees. In fact, just yesterday, 29 people died in South Korea from record-high temperatures after 15 consecutive days over 95 degrees Fahrenheit and spikes to 106 degrees.5
Before succumbing to full-blown heatstroke, many victims will experience its precursor, heat exhaustion. This condition can take you by surprise if you exercise in hot weather or even stay outside too long without drinking enough water. The risk is highest when temperatures climb above 90 degrees and humidity is high (above 60 percent) and is particularly pronounced for young children under four, seniors over age 50, those with hypertension, diabetes, or other health conditions, and those taking certain prescription drugs such as diuretics, psychiatric drugs including antidepressants, and heart and blood pressure medications.6 It’s also a real risk for anyone doing sports, running, biking, or otherwise working out on hot days. Symptoms include dizziness, excessive sweating, increased pulse, cool skin with goose bumps even when in the heat, muscle cramps, nausea, dark urine from dehydration, and headache.7 Dizziness occurs when the body depletes its stores of water or salt (from sweating).
Heat exhaustion, though, can lead to heat stroke, which is far more serious. By the time heat exhaustion passes the threshold into heat stroke, the body temperature has risen to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, which causes it to start shutting shut down. Symptoms are similar to those of heat exhaustion, but more severe. Victims may experience dizziness, fainting, nausea, vomiting, delirium and confusion, bright red skin, severe headache, blood in the urine, extreme fatigue, and even seizures.8
Experts say the key to preventing serious injury or death, if you’ve already allowed things to go that far, is to take fast action at the first signs of heat exhaustion. After 30 minutes of onset, the risk of damage to the organs, muscles, and brain escalates, as does the risk of death. If you notice any signs of difficulty, the first thing to do is get out of the heat. Then drink lots of water or an electrolyte-replacement drink while cooling your body down with ice or cold towels or even a plunge into cold water, if possible. Elderly people and young children should opt for cold water rather than ice. Doctors say it’s important to cool the body immediately, even before rushing to the emergency room.
Of course, avoiding heat exhaustion in the first-place beats treating it after it strikes. One key to staying safe is to be realistic about your physical limitations. Even if you’re in great shape, going out for a run on a sweltering day puts you at risk; nobody is invulnerable. If you can go to an air-conditioned gym instead, you’re better off, particularly if you’re of a certain age or have compromised health. If you’re going out into the heat, and particularly if you plan to do sports or otherwise exert yourself, here are some guidelines:
- Make sure you stay hydrated. That’s rule number one. Experts say you need to drink between two to four cups of water for every hour you spend in the sun. It’s also advisable to drink at least a full glass of water before you go out.
- Replace electrolytes. This is especially important if you’re sweating a lot. You can try drinking vegetable juice or diluted fruit juice rather than gulping sugary electrolyte-replacement drinks. Or, you can use a more enlightened electrolyte-replacement supplement like Hi-Lyte or Lyte-Show to get the benefits without the added junk.
- Avoid caffeine and alcohol. Both can make you lose fluids.
- Dress for the weather. That means protecting your head with a wide-brimmed hat and wearing loose, breathable clothing. Use an umbrella for shade if you must be out in scorching weather.
The important thing, of course, is to limit time in the sun and to take cooling-off breaks. If you do start to experience symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke, take those symptoms seriously, find a way to cool down and rehydrate, and don’t keep pushing yourself. You could end up dead otherwise.
- 1. Monash University. “Heatwave deaths will rise steadily by 2080 as globe warms up.” 31 June 2018. Eureka Alert. 1 August 2018. https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2018-07/mu-hdw072618.php
- 2. “Climate change will increase heatwave-related deaths by up to 2000 percent by 2080, new research shows.” The Week. 1 August 2018. http://m.theweek.com/speedreads/787969/climate-change-increase-heatwaverelated-deaths-by-2000-percent-by-2080-new-research-shows
- 3. “Heat Related Deaths.” August 2016. EPA. 1 August 2018. https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2016-08/documents/print_heat-deaths-2016.pdf
- 4. https://study.com/academy/lesson/heat-stroke-facts-statistics.html
- 5. Kim, Jungeon; Kim, Jennifer; and McKirdy, Euan. “Record-breaking temperatures leave 29 dead in South Korean heatwave.” 2 August 2018. 10News. 3 August 2018. https://www.wsls.com/weather/recordbreaking-heat-leaves-29-dead-in-south-korea
- 6. “Heat Exhaustion.” WebMD. 3 August 2018. https://www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/heat-exhaustion#1
- 7. MacMath, Jillian. “Heat exhaustion vs. heatstroke: What are the warning signs and how should you react?” Accuweather. 3 August 2018. https://www.accuweather.com/en/weather-news/what-is-heat-exhaustion-heat-stroke-warning-signs-prevention-treatment/58866856
- 8. Hayward, Jeff. “Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke: 12 Key Differences.” 27 June 2018. ActiveBeat. 3 August 2018. https://www.activebeat.com/your-health/heat-exhaustion-vs-heat-stroke-12-key-differences/12/