All about heat stroke: The symptoms and how you can avoid it

Heat stroke is serious business – you don't want to get on its bad side. Here’s how you can avoid heat stroke and identify the symptoms so you can enjoy your summer the right way!

Unless you’ve been living under a nice cool rock, you’ve probably noticed how hot it can get in Australia, especially in summer. Even at the beach the temperature can get too much!

Heat stroke is a real and serious danger here, so it's important to know how to avoid it – and if you do happen to get it you'll need to know how to recognise and treat it. Stay informed and you can keep yourself safe when the mercury starts rising again.

Planning on spending a lot of time in the sun? You’re going to want to pay extra close attention on how you can avoid heat stroke because trust us, this is not something you want to deal with.

What are heat stroke symptoms?

Heat stroke is a very serious illness and can be fatal if left unchecked. So how do you know if you've got it or not?

The symptoms mimic that of a heart attack, combined with an overwhelming sense of dehydration and dizziness that often results in vomiting, fainting and can prove fatal.

You may feel general heat-related fatigue before serious symptoms show, but as soon as any signs or symptoms arise it's important to get to a medical professional as soon as possible.

Symptoms include:

  • Hyperthermia (temperatures over 40C/104F)
  • Tachycardia (rapid heart rate)
  • Hypohidrosis (inability to produce sweat)
  • Syncope (fainting spells)
  • Dizziness/vertigo


How to avoid heat stroke


Avoiding heat stroke is simple if you take the right precautions. In Australian summers the heat can reach the high thirties and even forties, so it's important that on those days especially you take advantage of fans, pools, beaches and air conditioning to beat the heat.

Ensure that you're adequately covered – not only for heat stroke prevention, but also as a measure to protect against skin cancer. Stay in the shade wherever possible and if you do have to venture into the sun, wear a sunscreen with high SPF (we recommend at least 30-50+). Check out our guide to sunscreen if you're curious about recommendations.

If you start feeling particularly hot, drink plenty of cool water and use cold compresses on your forehead and the back of your neck to balance your temperature. This is of particular importance for elderly people or children, as their bodies can't regulate the heat as well as adults can.

What is the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion?

Though both are quite serious illnesses that are brought on by the heat, there's quite a distinct difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion, a difference that can take your illness from treatable at home to an emergency room visit. It's important to recognise your symptoms and differentiate between the two.

The following are the distinguishing signs for heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Stay informed and if in doubt, see a medical professional to be safe.

Heat exhaustion

  • Heavy sweating. You won't be quite as dehydrated as if you had heat stroke, so you'll still be producing sweat to try and cool your body down. Your body will try to overdo it, but if your body stops producing sweat, see a doctor.
  • Weak heart rate and headaches. You may experience a throb or headache that's unusual or centred in a specific spot. This is a sign of dehydration and should be monitored carefully.
  • Fainting. If you start getting dizzy, make sure you're in a safe area and that you aren't at risk of falling on anything or hurting yourself on the off chance that you faint.
  • Vomiting/nausea. This is one of the most common effects of heat exhaustion. Whenever you're unwell, nausea is a natural signal that something isn't right.
  • Clammy skin. As a result of your body trying to cool itself down rapidly, your skin may feel moist and clammy to touch.

Heat stroke

  • High temperatures over 40C (104F). In these circumstances it's imperative that you see a medical professional as soon as possible to reduce your fever.
  • Rapid heart rate with shallow breathing. Tachycardia is a strong indicator that something isn't right. When combined with fever, all signs point to heat stroke.
  • Dry skin/lack of sweat. If you've stopped sweating, you've gotten to the point of dehydration where your body cannot afford to exude sweat to cool it down.
  • Loss of consciousness. Fainting is a symptom of both heat stroke and heat exhaustion, but if combined with the other symptoms it should be taken very seriously.
  • Dizziness and vertigo. Some dizziness can occur in either illness, but with heat stroke it could be a sign that your condition is worsening and could be a precursor to fainting (possibly due to dehydration).

How is heat stroke treated?

Heat stroke is treated as a medical emergency, especially in severe cases. The most important thing to do is get out of the heat. Your condition will worsen the longer you're in hot temperatures.

Your best bet is to head straight to the hospital but if you can't get there straight away or you've got a long way to go, there are ways to minimise the effects in the meantime.

The best way to manage heat stroke at home is to ensure that you're cooling down in whatever way you can. Use cold flannels to bring down the temperature as much as possible and take sips of water to replenish moisture.

Use a fan or air conditioner to bring down the temperature around you. If you don't have one, run a cool bath and sit in the tub or in a pool. Just ensure it isn't too cold, as you don't want to jolt your system too much.


What causes heat stroke?

Heat stroke is caused by sustained exposure to high heat and exertion in heat, where the body can't self-regulate its core temperature. It results in serious illness, loss of function and can even be fatal.

Regarded as a form of hyperthermia, heat stroke is largely caused by overwhelmingly spending long periods in hot weather conditions or playing vigorous sport in hot weather. The biggest indicator of heat stroke is dehydration.

For this reason, athletes are equally as susceptible to heat stroke as children or the elderly. In terms of the latter demographic, compromised immune systems leave this group more vulnerable to developing heat stroke.


Is heat stroke dangerous?


Heat stroke is a very serious illness that can turn fatal if not treated promptly and effectively. It can be incredibly dangerous for children and elderly people especially, but it's also bad for healthy athletes who can be at risk for exertion-caused heat stroke.

Beyond being possibly fatal, if left unchecked heat stroke can cause nervous system and organ failure. This includes your brain – as with a conventional stroke, it could easily result in permanent damage.

This is why it's imperative that you seek treatment immediately if you suspect that you or someone around you may be experiencing heat stroke.

Heat stroke in dogs – yes, it happens.

Bet you didn’t realise that your canine best pal is just as much at risk for heat stroke as you are, especially if they have a thick coat. Imagine what summer would be like if you were wearing fur every day in the sun.

Dogs are at particular risk of heat stroke because the only areas where they’re capable of producing sweat are their nose and paws, which isn’t actually enough to cool their entire body down during extreme temperatures

Heat stroke symptoms in dogs are different to that of humans, with the exception of high temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius. If your dog is panting excessively, producing excess saliva, has deoxygenated gums or demonstrates a general state of distress, it’s best to provide medical attention.

The most important thing is to get your dog to the vet, but you can minimise the symptoms in the meantime by cooling your dog down as much as possible. This can include a cool bath, drinking and fanning, but it’s important not to use icy water because it’ll be too much of a shock to their system.

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Stephanie Panecasio

Stephanie was a writer at finder.com.au, specialising in shopping, fashion and beauty.

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