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Heatstroke Safety: How to Spot, Stop and Assist When Someone's In Danger

Here are the warning signs of heatstroke and how to act quickly to help cool someone down.

Jessica Rendall Wellness Reporter
Jessica is a writer on the Wellness team with a focus on health technology, eye care, nutrition and finding new approaches to chronic health problems. When she's not reporting on health facts, she makes things up in screenplays and short fiction.
Expertise Public health, new wellness technology and health hacks that don't cost money Credentials
  • Added coconut oil to cheap coffee before keto made it cool.
Jessica Rendall
Medically Reviewed
Reviewed by: Troy Mensen, DO Medical Reviewer
Dr. Troy Mensen is a family medicine doctor based in the Chicago area. He completed his undergraduate degree at the University of Northern Iowa and his doctorate at Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Expertise Family medicine Credentials
  • American Board of Family Medicine, Family Medicine
  • State of Illinois, Medical Examining Board License
Education
  • University of Northern Iowa, BA
  • Des Moines University College of Osteopathic Medicine, DO
4 min read
An orange hot sky
Chuchart Duangdaw/Moment via Getty Images

Summer 2024 is off to a hot start, with a heat wave blanketing much of the US this week and forecasts for a summer even hotter than last year's record-breaking season. With rising temperatures comes a rising risk of heatstroke, a medical emergency and the most serious heat-related illness.

Heatstroke can happen because of overexertion or strenuous activity, but "classic" heatstrokes occur when someone is exposed to a hot environment and their body temperature rises to dangerous levels. In people who work outside during the summer, most fatal illnesses happen during the first few days of working in or being exposed to hot weather, according to the US Department of Labor Department, because the body has no time to acclimate to the increased temperature.

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In addition to workers, heatstroke is especially common among the elderly, very young children, including babies, and in times "when we see these heat waves that go on for several days," Dr. Korin Hudson, an emergency room physician with MedStar Health, told CNET last year.

People with certain medical conditions and those taking certain medications or drugs, including alcohol, may also have a higher risk of heatstroke.

Here's what to know if you or someone near you starts experiencing symptoms of heatstroke. 

Heatstroke symptoms 

Sometimes, heatstroke can start with symptoms of heat exhaustion, which isn't quite as serious as heatstroke but still requires someone to cool down as quickly as possible. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, which is a medical emergency. If your symptoms worsen, last more than one hour or you start vomiting, call 911. 

Symptoms of heatstroke, according to the Mayo Clinic and the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, include: 

  • Altered mental state, including confusion, agitation and slurred speech (this may also result in "odd" behavior) 
  • Hot, flushed, usually dry skin (or, alternatively, heavy sweating -- if brought on by exercise, heatstroke may include moist skin) 
  • Headache
  • Seizures
  • Very high body temperature 
  • Rapid breathing
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of consciousness
An overflowing glass of water under a running faucet

Keeping hydrated by drinking enough water, both before you head outdoors and while you're out in the heat, is an important step to warding off heat illness. 

Peter Cade/Getty Images

1. Call 911

Having heatstroke is a medical emergency that requires professional care. 

If there's more than one person around to aid the person suffering heatstroke, Hudson advised that one person call 911 while the other helps the person through the steps below.

2. Get to a cooler area immediately 

If you're around someone who has heatstroke, move them to a cooler area, such as a nearby air-conditioned room or into the shade. 

Either way, "try to move them out of the heat as quickly as possible," Hudson said. The goal is to cool down the body's core temperature.

3. Take off excess clothing

Removing long-sleeve shirts, pants or other clothing will help a person cool down faster. Hudson said the goal is to reach "evaporative cooling," and clothing can prevent evaporation. 

(For people who choose to run in layers to "sweat off weight," Hudson said, you probably shouldn't. It's dangerous and can lead to heatstroke. You may consider cooling clothes that work with your body to keep you cooler and more comfortable.) 

4. Hold ice, cold towels or cool water to the skin 

If you have something like a cold towel or water bottle, put it on your or the other person's neck, armpits or groin. 

While you wait for help to arrive, you can even spray them down with cold water or put them in a cold shower -- anything to cool them off. Cold water immersion or an ice bath is one treatment for heatstroke that doctors may use at the hospital.

Don't force a drink on someone experiencing heatstroke, the CDC says. This is different advice than for someone who's experiencing heat exhaustion, which typically comes before heatstroke. While someone with heat exhaustion may be given sips of water or sports drink, a person experiencing heatstroke may be confused, lose consciousness or have an altered state of consciousness.

"Because they have a depressed or altered level of consciousness, it may affect their ability to swallow safely, so it's probably better not to give them anything to eat or drink," Hudson said. 

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Before and after heatstroke: check on your neighbors 

Some people are more susceptible to heat illness and heatstroke, such as older adults, younger children, people with mobility issues, certain health conditions and those taking certain medications, including common drugs like blood pressure or antidepressant medications.

In case of a heat wave, be especially mindful to check in with your elderly neighbor down the hall, or a friend who has trouble getting around, according to Hudson.

"This is the time that we really suggest people check on their neighbors," she said. "Especially in places where people don't have access to air conditioning or don't have a way to get someplace cool."

"They may be feeling poorly but can't do anything about it," Hudson added. 

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.