How to Prevent Heatstroke

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This survival-medicine website provides general information, not individual advice. Most scenarios assume the victim cannot get expert medical help. Please see the disclaimer.

Deadlier Than Natural Disasters: How to Prevent Heatstroke

Hot thermometerby James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention looked at the period between 1979 and 2003 and found that more people died from heatstroke than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. And most heatstroke deaths are so preventable.

In my last post, I suggested 10 ways to cope with the heat until you can get acclimated. That’s a good start to preventing heatstroke. But some of us are still going to get too hot. The youngest and oldest, the chronically ill, and those who work outside are especially at risk.

To Prevent Heatstroke, You Must …
Recognize Heat Exhaustion

The good news is heatstroke doesn’t just come out of the blue. It’s one problem in a spectrum of heat-related illnesses. First comes heat exhaustion. If you heed its warnings and do the right things, you can prevent what’s sure to follow otherwise—the potentially deadly heatstroke.

The symptoms of heat exhaustion are:

  • A sudden, massive increase in sweating
  • Muscle cramps
  • Extreme weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting

Signs of heat exhaustion are:

  • Pale skin color
  • Goose bumps and skin that has become cool to the touch
  • A weak pulse
  • A pulse rate well below one hundred
  • Low blood pressure
  • Confusion

It is this risk of confusion that makes it very important you work with a partner so you can monitor each other.

To Prevent Heatstroke, You Must …
Halt the Exhaustion

Here’s what to do if you have those signs or symptoms:

  • Stop work immediately. Not when you get to a finishing place, not in a few minutes. Immediately. Your body generates heat with activity.
  • Find the coolest spot available, and lie down.
  • Drink water or a sports drink. You’re almost always dehydrated. The fluids will help cool you and help your circulation work more efficiently to cool you off.
  • Don’t drink caffeine. It’s a diuretic and can adversely affect your circulation.
  • Don’t drink high-sugar drinks. They’re harder to absorb.
  • Stay cool the rest of the day. As I explained in my hypothermia articles, our body functions best at 98.6, give or take a degree or two. When you develop heat exhaustion, your temperature regulators go haywire. Your body has lost the ability to cool itself and will only get hotter unless you externally cool off. Your core, where your vital organs reside, have heated to 102 or more. Your whole body needs time to cool because when your temperature gets to 103, you’re getting very close to the shutdown levels of heatstroke.

If that happens, it’s a medical emergency. I’ll give you suggestions on what to do about that in the next post.

Have any of you experienced heat exhaustion? What did you do? How did you feel?

Photo by CJ Sorg on Flickr.

  • Terese67

    Does anybody know if you can keep sports drinks in a car all summer incase they are needed? Do you think the heat would destroy it’s properties? Make sure they have potassium in them. This is very important ingredient to help improve the electrolytes that have been lost through sweating.

  • Terese67

    I suffered heat exhaustion a few years ago while camping. It had been in the 80’s and 90’s for the three days my sister and I were at a camp site. On the day we came home, I was driving and started feeling strange. When we arrived at her house, I was so hot I couldn’t cool down. I took two cold showers and the only relief was while in the shower. Went I was driving home I stopped at the ER. They confirmed the heat exhaustion and gave me a liter of fluids open all the way. I felt quite a bit better. They told me to keep drinking when I went home. My great uncle died in the 1930’s of heat stroke. He would go house to house selling things. Naturally, it was a very hot day. Scary stuff.

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  • Kalisa Myers

    These posts are great! I had heatstroke when I was 5. We had just moved to Florida from Seattle, it was the dead of summer. We were moving, the adults were busy, and I was way too hot. I woke up in the bathtub, they were pouring cold water on me.

    This doctor is doing more for us than any of them! He shares the knowledge freely and we are grateful. Thanks, Doc!

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      You’re welcome.

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  • Jane Cassidy

    I like to wear a wet golf shirt on super hot days. it feels like personal portable air conditioning.

    • Terese67

      They make so many types of new wicking shirts and breathable ones. Smart Jane.

    • James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Thanks, Jane

  • Isabella Trevis

    Muscle cramps can really ruin anyones day but it is not so much of a problem if you know how to do some light massage or acupunture.,

    Hottest blog post on our blog page

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  • Renita Behrle

    When i get some bad muscle cramps, i would just take some OTC pain killers and food supplements that helps and healing the joints and muscles. .::””

    Kind regards

  • mel

    I had heat stroke once a couple of years back, and now I can’t be out in it. Is there any way to get past the intolerance?

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Take it slow, Mel. Like I suggest in my previous post on 10 Tips …

      You may not ever be able to tolerate the heat like you used to, but you should get better.