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.

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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.

    • 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.

  • Paul (old RT)

    Dont forget your pets ! Especially dogs! They dont sweat , the pant. Many years ago we had a golden retriever who lived to fetch. One hot summer evening we had friends over. There young son went out to play with amber, it kept them both busy! When everyone left iwent to let the dogs in, the other 2 ran in but no Amber, i looked on deck , there she was, collapsed, slayed out and not even panting! I immediately grabed the hose and soaked her down, I had wife bring ice and towels out to wrap in and off we headed to a Vet emergency clinic. She had never even tried reaching her water bowl outside, the 2 of them had played way to hard and she sufffered from it. She didnt make it, her brain had swollen to much and caused to much damage. The Vet had said myt efforts to cool her down as quickly as possible were correct but still she didnt make it. Take in account if you have pets to be aware of their condition in heat also!

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Paul, that’s very sad. But I’m glad you shared it since it could save someone’s pet.

  • Alice, RN

    Thanks for the great article. This really needs to be stressed to coaches, especially of young children. My son played minor league baseball (5-7 year olds); games were held from 10am-2pm. One particularly hot day, I kept waiting for the coach to call the game because of heat, but he never did. I ended up going onto the field and carrying my son off. He had all of the symptoms of heat exhaustion. I’m glad I was there, and sorry that I waited so long. Many of the children ride their bikes to the games, and have no adult there watching over them. Very scary!

    • James Hubbard, M.D., M.P.H.

      Yes it is, Alice. Thanks for the comment.