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Heat Stroke - Causes, Symptoms, Risk Factors, Complications and Prevention

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Heat stroke is a serious condition that the body suffers due to overheating. The below article explains this condition in detail.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Radha Peruvemba Hariharan

Published At May 3, 2022
Reviewed AtMay 3, 2024


Summers can be exhausting for everyone. When the body loses control over maintaining the temperature, it could pull a person to the emergency room, causing them to suffer a heat stroke. It usually results from prolonged heat exposure and working under heavy temperatures. When the body heat increases rapidly, the body loses its control, and the sweat mechanism fails to support it, leading to this medical emergency.

What Are the Causes of Heat Stroke?

The reason for a heat stroke, without any confusion, is anything that does not let the body cool itself. Causes include:

1. Working Under the Sun for a Longer Period: People who work outdoors under the sun suffer heat strokes often. As the heat exposure is continuous, even when the body tries to cope and cool itself, it fails, leading to heat stroke. They are common in the elderly and people with long-term medical conditions, otherwise weak. It is called a non-exertional heat stroke (NEHS).

2. Increased Physical Exertion in a Hot Climate: This primarily affects younger individuals who get involved in strenuous exercises in hot climates, as it increases the body temperature. Certain people survive and cope with hot temperatures well, whereas some have difficulty coping; the latter are the most prone to heat stroke. This type of heat stroke is called exertional heat stroke (EHS).

Apart from these two, other certain factors that trigger heat stroke, such as,

  • Wearing multiple layers of clothing.

  • Wearing winter clothes during summer or in humid regions.

  • Insufficient hydration in the body.

  • Alcohol abuse, infection, and sepsis (body reaction to an infection that accidentally damages its tissue).

What Are the Symptoms of a Heat Stroke?

Suffering a heat stroke shows up as the following symptoms such as;

  • A peak in the body temperature, which is usually above 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

  • Hot, red, and flushed skin.

  • Rapid pulse and heartbeat.

  • Fast breathing.

  • Nausea.

  • Confusion, slurred speech, continuous irritation, and disorientation.

  • Headache, dizziness, followed by fainting and loss of consciousness.

What Are the Common Risk Factors for Heat Stroke?

  • Older Adults: The incidence of heat stroke is more common among the elderly who live and work under the intense sun in villages and those who live in less ventilated homes in cities.

  • Certain Habits: Experts state that alcohol and the sun are a dangerous mix. Habits, such as alcohol abuse, increase the risk of heat stroke. Alcohol tends to slow down the gland called the hypothalamus (a brain part), which regulates body temperature. Also, it is a diuretic that helps the body remove its water content, which proves its absence of role in heat stroke.

  • Hot Temperatures: Working under the hot sun or increased physical exertion can increase the risk of heat strokes. Sports activities and military training could cause heat stroke in younger adults.

  • Absence of Air Conditioning: Air conditioners efficiently manage hot climates; their absence worsens the room's temperature, increasing the risk of heat strokes.

  • Medications: Some medications, such as antihypertensive drugs, diuretics, and antidepressants, can keep the body far from hydration, causing heat stroke.

  • Medical Conditions: Certain underlying diseases involving the heart, lungs, and other organs, being obese, and having a previous history of heat strokes can increase the risk of heat stroke.

When to Consult a Doctor and Give First Aid for Heat Stroke?

If one is suspected to have symptoms of heatstroke and needs medical attention, one must seek medical help from the local emergency authority. Heat stroke that prolongs for more than half an hour is an emergency and needs medical intervention immediately. Therefore, someone should go for an ambulance and stay with the person suffering a heat stroke.

First Aid for Heat Stroke:

  • Move the person experiencing heat stroke to a cool and shady area.

  • Refrain from giving them anything to drink.

  • Aid the patient to cool down the body temperature by using cold towels and giving them a cold bath.

  • Avail the patient with free air or use a fan to provide air.

  • If the person is young and has suffered heat stroke due to strenuous exercise, placing ice on different body parts and immersing them in ice-cold water helps. However, ice water is contraindicated in older patients, children, and those with chronic diseases.

  • Remove or change thick clothing to minimize body heat.

How To Prevent a Heat Stroke?

Surviving summers efficiently can reduce the risk and prevent heat stroke. The various preventive measures for heat stroke include;

  • Drink plenty of fluids, such as water and fresh juices, to keep the body hydrated. Avoid liquids rich in sugar.

  • Wear appropriate clothing, such as lightweight, thin clothes, minimize the layers, or, if possible, wear clothes made of breathable fabrics.

  • Apply sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 plus. Make sure to apply sunscreen on the other body parts and not just the face.

  • Wear sunglasses.

  • If any of the symptoms mentioned earlier start to show up, make sure to move to a shady place before the symptoms worsen.

  • Schedule the outdoor activities and game practices to early mornings or late evenings.

  • Do not stay in confined spaces, such as rooms without proper ventilation or locked cars, for an extended period.

  • Avoid hot, heavy, and spicy meals. Eat foods that minimize body heat and keep one hydrated for hours.

  • Try staying in air-conditioned rooms during the peak heat hours.

  • Caffeine and alcohol intake makes the body lose more water and worsens the condition. So, avoiding both would be a great help.

  • If one cannot tolerate a hot climate, try to stay away from such areas.

  • Take cold or normal water baths and avoid hot water baths during summer.

What Are the Complications Associated With Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke can be life-threatening if necessary care is not provided. It can affect various vital organs, including the heart, lungs, kidneys, and brain. Doctors recommend taking a few blood tests, urine tests, and kidney function tests to rule out dehydration and treat it accordingly. If the treatment is delayed or not sought, it can lead to death.


Though framed as a medical emergency, heat stroke can be managed easily using conservative management and home care when diagnosed right. If susceptible to heat strokes, taking the necessary precautions during summer helps bid bye to heat strokes. The precautions to be taken are easy and helpful in various other ways.

Frequently Asked Questions


How to Manage a Heat Stroke?

The treatment objective for heat stroke is to minimize the body temperature using various cooling techniques such as;
- Shift the person to a shady or a cool place.
- Immerse the whole body in cold water.
- Pack the body with a cold blanket or ice packs.
- Spray or splash ice water onto the body and provide proper ventilation by using a fan.
- If the symptoms do not subside in 30 minutes or so, seek medical help immediately.


What Is the Healing Period for a Heat Stroke?

Recovery from a heat stroke entirely depends on the severity of heat stroke and the involvement of the internal organs. The treatment prognosis varies with the severity. For minimal symptoms and no internal damage, it takes one to two days of hospitalization. Whereas, in cases of severe heat stroke with organ involvement, it can take up to a year.


How Does a Heat Stroke Vary From Heat Exhaustion?

- Though both these conditions are caused due to heat, heat stroke is a medical emergency in which the internal body temperature exceeds the normal range, while heat exhaustion happens due to excessive loss of the body’s water and salt through sweat as a result of which heat exhaustion is mostly accompanied by dehydration.
- Heat stroke requires immediate medical support, whereas heat exhaustion can be mostly managed with home care.
- The most important difference in treating both these conditions is that a person going through heat exhaustion should be provided water and fluids, whereas, in heat stroke, it is strictly not advisable.


What Happens During a Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke is a condition that is caused due to heat. In a heat stroke, the body fails to have control over its temperature, which leads to a shoot up in the body temperature and failure of the sweat mechanism, thereby causing symptoms such as rapid pulse and heartbeat, sudden rise in body temperature, rapid breathing, headache, nausea, dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness, etc.


What Is the Major Cause of Heat Stroke?

Heat strokes are more common when the temperature is hotter than usual, that is, in summers. The major cause of a heat stroke is body overheating due to continuous exposure to the sun for a longer period of time and over-exerting the body during hot temperatures.


Is It Safe to Give Water to a Person Experiencing Heat Stroke?

No, it is not advisable to give water to a person experiencing a heat stroke as the water might accidentally enter the airways, thereby reaching the lungs, which could lead to complications.


How Far Can the Body Temperature Go in a Heat Stroke?

The body temperature rises as high as 106 ℉ or more in less than 15 minutes or so in a person experiencing heat stroke.


How to Manage a Heat Stroke Headache?

- Shift to a shady and cold place.
- Do cold compress.
These can usually ease a heat stroke-related headache. But when severe medical help should be sought.


How to Identify Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke can be ruled out by spotting the following signs and symptoms;
- High body temperature, probably more than 103 ℉.
- Rapid pulse and heartbeat.
- Sudden rise in body temperature.
- Rapid breathing.
- Headache.
- Nausea.
- Dizziness.
- Confusion.
- Slurred speech.
- Loss of consciousness, etc.


What Is the Emergency Care for a Heat Stroke?

The emergency care for a person experiencing a heat stroke includes;
- Shift the person to a shady or a cool place.
- Call for an ambulance.
- Stay with the person.
- Immerse the whole body in cold water.
- Pack the body with a cold blanket or ice packs.
- Spray or splash ice water onto the body and provide proper ventilation by using a fan.
- Remove heavy or multiple layers of clothing.
- Monitor the person’s temperature, airway, breathing, etc.
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Dr. Radha Peruvemba Hariharan



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