During summer, people spend more time outdoors. But high temperatures can cause a dangerous reaction called hyperthermia, commonly known as heat stroke.
It is important to recognize the signs of hyperthermia, and seek medical attention if you or someone in your care shows symptoms.
Hyperthermia is characterized by a highly increased body temperature — over 104 degrees Fahrenheit — and other symptoms associated with overheating. Initial symptoms can include headache, dizziness, flushed face, lethargic behavior and confusion. More serious symptoms include fever, vomiting, changes in heart rate and loss of consciousness. In extreme cases, hyperthermia can lead to cardiac arrest, seizure, coma and even death.
Hyperthermia is usually caused by exposure to a very hot environment, but other factors can affect a person’s risk. Children, elderly adults and those with existing medical conditions, including thyroid and heart disorders, are more prone to heat stroke. Visiting a new environment or taking certain medicines, including sedatives or antidepressants, also can put a person at risk.
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To protect yourself from hyperthermia, monitor your body while spending time in hot places. Drink fluids and take cover in the shade when you can. When children are playing outside, watch for subtle visual signs of heat stroke, including a flushed face, dizziness or fatigue.
The elderly should take extra precautions to ensure that their bodies are cooling properly. Elderly people sometimes have difficulty recognizing when they’re thirsty, and they stay indoors during the hottest hours of the day, often with no air conditioning, putting them at risk.
If you or someone in your care displays heat stroke symptoms, seek medical care right away. In extreme cases, call 911. Treatment for hyperthermia should begin immediately, even before medical care is available. If you see someone with symptoms, place the person in a shaded area, fan them, and give them a cool drink of water or an electrolyte beverage to rehydrate.
Once a hyperthermia victim is in medical care, there are a variety of clinical treatments that work to reduce the core temperature of the body. Physicians might wrap the patient in cooling blankets or administer an intravenous injection of saline. Patients might receive emersion treatment, in which they are submerged into cool water. Extreme cases of hyperthermia require additional treatment.
Once stable, heat stroke patients need ample rest and fluids for several days. They are asked to avoid hot environments, because hyperthermia is likely to recur. Patients can typically return to normal activity after two or three days. If treated properly, hyperthermia doesn’t usually have long-term effects.
Hyperthermia is preventable if you take precautions during the warmer months. If you are a parent, practice caution when your child is playing outside. If you have elderly parents or neighbors, check on them frequently during the summer, to ensure that they are properly hydrated and their home is cool.
Everyone reacts to temperature change differently, so ask your doctor if you might be at risk for hyperthermia.
Dr. Peter Ko is with Family Medicine with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates.