What is heatstroke?
A heatstroke is generally caused when someone has prolonged exposure to heat. The main sign of a heatstroke is when the body’s temperature reaches 104 degrees or higher.
This summer, Emergency Medical Service Authority paramedics have responded to 38 heat calls since May 1. Last summer, EMSA declared its first “heat alert,” when dispatchers received five heat-related emergency calls, on June 13. In 2011, one heat alert lasted for 58 straight days as temperatures soared.
What are the symptoms?
A heatstroke can follow heat cramps or heat exhaustion. Some of the first signs might include fainting, a throbbing headache, dizziness or a lack of sweating. When you stop sweating, that can mean that your body’s regulation system has shut down, and you can no longer cool yourself. Oftentimes, it’s a progression of symptoms. Other symptoms can include irrational behavior, extreme confusion, red skin, shallow breathing and a weak pulse.
You can suffer from a heatstroke without symptoms though, especially if you’re taking certain medications, such as antihistamines, diet pills and water pills, and also if you’re abusing illegal drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine.
Your chances of suffering from heat-related illnesses are also increased when you’re wearing heavy clothing, humidity is high and the heat index is above 100.
Children, people older than 65 and people who are obese are at a higher risk of suffering from heat-related illnesses. However, a variety of people can become overheated and suffer heatstrokes, including people exercising outside when it’s hot, especially if they’re not acclimated to the heat, or people working with asphalt or in construction. It’s important not to ignore your body when spending time outdoors.
How is it treated?
A heatstroke is a medical emergency, meaning you should get to care as quickly as possible.
Once emergency personnel arrives, paramedics will usually deliver IV fluids, remove unnecessary clothing and wet the person suffering from heatstroke. Sometimes they will place ice packs in a person’s armpits, groin area and behind the neck. The person will likely be taken to a hospital, for a heatstroke can result in serious complications, including brain damage and damage to internal organs.
If you encounter someone suffering from a heatstroke, it’s important to move them into an air-conditioned environment, if you can. Otherwise, help them to shade, and remove any unnecessary clothing. It can help to sprinkle water on them and fan them while waiting for 911. Dispatchers in the Oklahoma City metro are trained to coach a caller through helping someone suffering from heat-related illnesses.
It’s important not to underestimate the severity of heat illness. If you suspect someone is suffering a heatstroke, don’t give them medication to treat fever; that likely won’t help and could be harmful. Also, don’t give a person liquids containing alcohol or caffeine.
What’s the recovery time?
It will depend on the severity of the heatstroke. If a person doesn’t get help quickly, he or she could die or suffer from brain damage or damage to other vital organs. Because of a heatstroke, these organs might swell, and if you don’t cool your body temperature quickly, the damage from this swelling could be permanent.
When spending time in the heat, it’s important to take precautions, including wearing loose-fitting and light-colored clothing, drinking plenty of fluids and not spending too much time outside in the hottest parts of the day. It’s also important to never leave children in parked cars.
Sources: Jim Winham, EMSA director of clinical service; MedlinePlus, a service of the U.S. National Library of Medicine; the Mayo Clinic