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August 10, 2017

Could I Have Heatstroke? | Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion

With many of us travelling to hot destinations this month in search of sunshine, we should all be aware of the dangers of heatstroke. Parts of Europe have experienced unprecedented temperatures this August with parts of Southern Spain and Italy reaching the early 40’s. With the influence of global warming, it is predicted that the incidence of heat-related fatalities will increase dramatically over the coming years, with one estimating the increase at 257% by the year 2050.

Heatstroke doesn’t just hit those who spend hours on the beach in the midday sun. One story currently doing the rounds on social media relates how a 3 year-old girl in Edmonton, NW Canada, went down with heat stroke simply after a 90 minute midday nap in an overly hot bedroom. Anastasia Abma was found unconscious in her bedroom by her mother during an unusually warm period. Luckily, paramedics were able to revive her after an emergency dose of sucrose to raise her blood sugar levels, but many haven’t been so lucky - more than 600 people die from heat-related illness in the US each year.

At worst and if left untreated, heat exhaustion and heatstroke can be life-threatening, so immediate action is required if either are suspected. Both usually occur when the body is over-exposed to hot weather. Sunbathing with no head protection for too long is enough to bring on dangerous symptoms, as is strenuous physical exercise in the sun or, as we’ve seen with Anastasia’s story, simply an overly hot room.

The Difference Between Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke

Essentially, heat stroke is a more developed, and therefore more dangerous, version of heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion is when the body becomes excessively hot with a temperature between 37C and 40C. The body starts to lose valuable water and salts as a result of heavy sweating and the skin becomes pale and clammy. If left untreated, this can develop into heatstroke where the body temperature rises to 40C and above and can no longer cool itself down, and the skin becomes suspiciously dry and hot. At this stage, a massive strain is put on key organs leading to potentially fatal complications.

Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke Symptoms

The symptoms listed below can develop quickly within the space of just a few minutes, or can develop gradually over a number of hours or even days:

  • Dizziness
  • Excessive tiredness and weakness
  • Headaches
  • Nausea
  • Intense thirst
  • Heavy sweating
  • Muscular cramps
  • Fast pulse rate
  • Darker urine than usual

If left untreated, more severe symptoms can develop, including:

  • Confusion
  • Seizures or fits
  • In extreme cases, a loss of consciousness.

Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke Diagnosis

Both conditions share symptoms with a number of other illnesses, but if you have been exposed to excessive sun or heat as well as having these symptoms, then one of these two is more likely to be the culprit. If you’re in doubt, enter your symptoms into the Isabel Symptom Checker:


Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke treatment

The treatment for either of these conditions depends on the severity of the symptoms. If you or someone you know is experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, give First Aid as follows:

  • The priority is to cool the patient down as much and as quickly as possible. Move them to a cool place and remove any unnecessary clothing.
  • Get them to drink as much water as possible
  • Place wet towels on their forehead and spray water over their body. Ice-packs can be placed on the neck and under the arms
  • Get them to lie down with their feet slightly raised

You should notice an improvement in 30 minutes, meaning the person has a lower temperature and appears more comfortable. If this is not the case, an ambulance should be called. An ambulance should also be called if you see any of the following:

  • A temperature of 40 degrees or above
  • Seizures (fits)
  • Is unconscious or not responding
  • Has rapid or shortness of breath

How to prevent heat exhaustion

Heatstroke can be avoided by noticing the signs of heat exhaustion and taking the correct actions, as described above. Heat exhaustion is caused by excessive exposure to the sun and heat and can also be avoided in most cases. If you’re travelling to a hot country, try to avoid being out in the sun between 11am and 3pm, or if you have to go out, stay in the shade. Wear loose fitting clothes and a hat at all times and apply sunscreen, topping up to protect throughout the day. Avoid physical exertion and try to expose yourself gradually to the sun for the first few days until your body acclimatises to the new temperature. But as in the case of Anastasia, staying inside is no guarantee of avoiding this condition. If a room feels overly hot and has no air-conditioning, get a fan to at least circulate fresh air and keep as hydrated as possible. Taking a cold shower or just sprinkling cool water on your head and neck will also help to bring down your body temperature.


If you are unsure about your symptoms or think you or someone you know may be suffering from heat related illness, place your symptoms into the Isabel Symptom Checker:



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