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Heatstroke/Sunstroke Prevention


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About Heatstroke/Sunstroke

Heatstroke occurs when your body's thermostat cannot keep your body cool. Your body relies on water evaporation to stay cool. As your temperature rises, your body reacts by sweating. When this sweat evaporates, it cools your body. The amount of moisture in the air (humidity) determines how readily sweat evaporates. In very dry air, sweat evaporates easily, quickly cooling your body; but in very humid air, sweat does not evaporate. It may collect on the skin or run off your body without affecting your body's climbing temperature.


Extremely warm and humid temperatures can quickly overwhelm your body's cooling system--particularly when the air is not circulating. When sweating can no longer keep you cool, body temperature quickly rises, causing the symptoms of heat-related illness.


Sunstroke is a type of heatstroke. Heatstroke is a condition that occurs after exposure to excessive heat. In sunstroke--also called heat illness, heat injury, hyperthermia, heat prostration, and heat collapse--the source of heat is the sun. Other types of heatstroke occur after exposure to heat from different sources.
Heatstroke—including sunstroke -- is considered to be the most severe of the heat-related illnesses. Heat can have punishing effects on your body.

After excessive exercise or physical labor, your body can overheat, and you may suffer heat exhaustion.Heat cramps occur after excessive loss of water and salt; usually resulting from excessive sweating, or after strenuous exercise or labor. During heat exhaustion and heat cramps, the heat-controlling system is still intact, but can be overwhelmed. If this happens, heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, a life-threatening medical condition. In severe cases, heatstroke can even cause organ dysfunction, brain damage, and death.

Causes of Heatstroke/Sunstroke

Sunstroke is caused by a failure in your body's cooling system. When its cooling system fails, your body is overwhelmed by excess heat; this is when sunstroke occurs. Anything that disrupts your body's thermostat can increase the likelihood of sunstroke. These may include such factors as underlying medical conditions, medications, physical characteristics, or age.
Dehydration contributes to sunstroke. Dehydration happens when your body excretes more water than it takes in. For example, increased water loss through excessive urination is a common side effect of caffeine, alcohol, and many prescription and over-the-counter medications. When the water supply in your body is low, cells begin to pull water from the bloodstream, forcing organs to work harder.


Dehydration can also affect the skin's ability to cool the body efficiently. The heart must pump an adequate supply of blood to the skin in order for the skin to cool the body. When you are dehydrated, the blood's volume is reduced, so the cooling process becomes less effective. The taxing effect on the body escalates into the symptoms of heat-related illness.

Prolonged exposure to the sun contributes to sunstroke. When body fluids are not adequately replenished, sun exposure can cause rapid dehydration. Even on mild or overcast days, the sun can have dangerous health effects. The heat index is a measure calculated by the National Weather Service. It indicates how hot it "feels" outside in the shade when both the air temperature and the relative humidity are considered. In the direct sun, the heat index rises even higher.


The following heat indices are associated with these heat-related conditions:
• 80°F - 90°F: Fatigue possible after prolonged physical activity or sun exposure.
• 90°F - 105°F: Heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and sunstroke possible after prolonged physical activity or sun exposure.
• 105°F - 130°F: Heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and sunstroke likely after prolonged physical activity or sun exposure.
• 130°F and higher: Sunstroke likely with sustained exposure to the sun.

Symptoms of Heatstroke/Sunstroke

Symptoms of sunstroke can occur suddenly. Once your body loses its ability to regulate heat, body temperature can rise quickly. Symptoms of sunstroke include sudden headache, dizziness, weakness, or fainting. Because your body's thermostat is malfunctioning, you will only sweat a little bit or not at all. The skin is hot and dry. Body temperature can rise to 102°F (38.9°C) or higher. In severe cases, repeated vomiting and coma can occur.


Symptoms of Sunstroke
• Sudden dizziness, weakness, or faintness
• Sudden headache
• Little or no sweating
• Hot and dry skin
• High body temperature, typically 102°F (38.9°C) or higher
• Rapid heartbeat
• Muscle cramps
• Vomiting
• Coma

Risk Factors of Heatstroke/Sunstroke

Young children and the elderly are at an increased risk for heatstroke and sunstroke. Young children who rely on others to modify their environments—for example, to remove extra blankets or heavy clothing—may be sensitive to rising temperatures. Elderly adults are less sensitive to changes in temperature, so their thermostats work less efficiently. People with excess body fat are also more likely to retain heat.


Risk Factors for Sunstroke
• Very old or very young age
• Low level of physical activity
• Obesity
• Smoking, drug, and alcohol use
• Heart disease
• High blood pressure
• Diseases of the skin, kidney, or liver
• Decreased ability to sweat, such as in scleroderma and cystic fibrosis
• Medications that can aggravate sunstroke, including water pills (diuretics), allergy pills (antihistamines), tranquilizers, anticholinergics, and amphetamines
• Heavy, restrictive clothing
• Poor ventilation or lack of air conditioning in home
• High humidity

Conditions or medications that cause dehydration can increase your risk for sunstroke Skin disorders such as scleroderma can interfere with your ability to sweat. Dehydrating medications; for example, the diuretics furosemide (Lasix) or hydrochlorothiaszide (Esidrix) make less water available in the body for sweat, thereby crippling your body's cooling system.

Diagnosis from Heatstroke/Sunstroke

Young children and the elderly are at an increased risk for heatstroke and sunstroke. Young children who rely on others to modify their environments—for example, to remove extra blankets or heavy clothing—may be sensitive to rising temperatures. Elderly adults are less sensitive to changes in temperature, so their thermostats work less efficiently. People with excess body fat are also more likely to retain heat.


Your doctor may perform tests to rule out conditions with symptoms similar to those of sunstroke. Irregular heartbeats, a heart attack, a fever-causing infection, fluid loss related to medications, or cocaine intoxication can mimic sunstroke by causing elevated blood pressure and body temperature.

First Aid for Heatstroke or Sunstroke
• Remove victim to cooler location, out of the sun
• Loosen or remove clothing and immerse victim in very cool water if possible
• If immersion isn't possible, cool victim with water, or wrap in wet sheets and fan for quick evaporation
• Use cold compresses-especially to the head & neck area, also to armpits and groin
• Seek medical attention immediately--continue first aid to lower temp. until medical help takes over
Do NOT give any medication to lower fever--it will not be effective and may cause further harm
Do NOT use an alcohol rub
• It is not advisable to give the victim anything by mouth (even water) until the condition has been stabilized.

The underlying cause of heat stroke is connected to the sometimes sudden inability to dissipate body heat through perspiration, especially after strenuous physical activity.
This accounts for the excessive rise in body temperature and it is the high fever which can cause permanent damage to internal organs, and can result in death if not treated immediately. Recovery depends on heat duration and intensity. The goal of emergency treatment is to maintain circulation and lower body temperature as quickly as possible.

Prevention and Screening

Drink plenty of fluids. Keeping the body well-hydrated is the easiest and most reliable way to prevent heat-related illness. Under normal conditions, you should consume at least eight 8-ounce glasses of water per day.


During strenuous activity, it is essential to replenish fluid at least every 20 minutes, even if you are not thirsty. Avoid caffeinated and alcoholic drinks; these act as diuretics and dehydrate the body.


Avoid exposure to excessive heat. Stay in shaded, cool, or air-conditioned areas whenever possible. In addition, schedule your activities to avoid being outside during the hottest times of the day (from 10am to 6pm). When you must be outside, wear loose-fitting, lightweight, light-colored clothing. Wear a hat that shades your face, neck, and ears.

Avoid strenuous activity in warm climates. If you want to exercise outside, do so during the early morning, which is the coolest part of the day.

Strategies for Preventing Sunstroke

• Drink plenty of non-caffeinated, non-alcoholic fluids during the day, even if you are not thirsty.
• Replenish water lost through sweat by drinking at least every 20 minutes during exercise.
• Stay in cool, shaded, or air-conditioned areas.
• Avoid being outside during the hottest hours of the day (10 AM to 6 PM)
• Wear cool, non-restrictive, light-colored clothing.


Urgent Care
If someone shows the signs of sunstroke, seek medical treatment. Before medical treatment arrives, move the individual to a cool area. Provide cool drinks—preferably a sport drink containing both sugar and salt. Remove any constricting clothing.


Treatment strategies depend on the severity of the symptoms. Treatment for sunstroke begins immediately upon diagnosis by a medical doctor. In mild cases, the body can be effectively cooled by taking the patient to a shaded or air-conditioned area, removing most clothing, and applying cool water or ice packs to the skin. Drinking iced fluids also helps return the body temperature to a safe level.

In severe cases, treatment involves rapid cooling, either by immersing the body in an ice water bath or by evaporative cooling. In the latter procedure, large circulating fans blow cool air across wet skin.

Self Care

Take steps to prevent heatstroke and sunstroke. Drink plenty of water, stay out of the sun, and avoid strenuous activity during hot weather. In addition, avoid drinking caffeinated beverages to keep yourself from becoming dehydrated.

If you start to experience the symptoms of heatstroke, move to a cool, shady area and drink something cool -- preferably a beverage containing both sugar and salt.

Alternative Medicine

Some people like to use chamomile flowers to relieve the symptoms of sunstroke, although the effectiveness of this treatment is uncertain.


Recovery from sunstroke depends on the speed and effectiveness of diagnosis and treatment. When treatment for sunstroke is administered promptly, the patient can expect a full recovery in one or two days. In severe cases, when body temperature climbs to 106°F (41.1°C), sunstroke can cause shock. After prolonged exposure to such high body temperatures, brain damage can occur. Death occurs in 10% to 80% of heatstroke cases. The likelihood of dying from heatstroke increases with a longer duration of heat exposure.


After a full recovery from heatstroke, little follow-up care is needed. Recovered patients may want to rest and stay in cool areas for several days. Patients should also adopt aggressive prevention strategies to keep sunstroke from recurring.

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