Heatstroke: Knowing the warning signs can save your life

By: Health Local Staff Aug 01, 2011

Learn the signs of heatstroke in adults, children and pets.

Summertime is all about getting outside and having fun in the sun. But the same sun that can give so much pleasure can also be dangerous. Human beings do not have an unlimited tolerance for heat; in fact, it is surprising how quickly the human body can become overwhelmed when exposed to hot weather. Animals are just as vulnerable as people to high heat, perhaps even more so because of the layering of fur that covers their bodies. Heat sickness of any type is very serious because it can ultimately lead to heatstroke, which if left untreated can quickly become a life-threatening condition.


The development of heatstroke in adults

The body normally releases excess heat directly through the skin or by sweating. However, when a body is exposed to high levels of heat and/or humidity for a prolonged period of time, excess warmth cannot be released fast enough to keep the body from continuing to get hotter. Lack of proper moisture levels also can lead to heatstroke, as the body needs a steady supply of water in order to be able to generate a sufficient amount of sweat.

As the body becomes overheated, some of the symptoms that begin to manifest include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme Weakness and Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Headache

At this point, simple heat sickness can still perhaps be treated by going immediately to a cooler place, and consuming plentiful amounts of cool (not ice cold) water. However, if a person chooses to continue exposing themselves to the heat beyond this point, further symptoms may develop that are often indicative of heatstroke.

The signs of this dangerous condition include:

  • High body temperature
  • Rapid pulse
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Lack of sweat
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures

Once anyone begins to show symptoms like these, 9-1-1 should be called immediately. While waiting for paramedics to arrive, it is critically important to try and lower body temperature in any way possible. Water should be given; ice packs can be applied to the groin and under the arms; fans can be used and if a bathtub is available the person showing signs of heatstroke should be immersed completely in cool water. Water that is too cold should not be used since it can cause the blood vessels of the body to constrict while causing to great a shock to the system.

Heatstroke in children

Heatstroke in children has symptoms that are somewhat different than those found in adults. Children suffering heatstroke will begin to exhibit high anxiety and strange behavior in addition to the typical physical symptoms such as high body temperature and difficulty breathing. Heatstroke mimics a heart attack in adults, but in children they tend to resemble an extreme panic attack.

Infants can be especially vulnerable to heatstroke, and parents must observe them very closely for possible signs of this illness such as red flushed skin that feels clammy to the touch, fits of uncontrollable but tearless crying, and the inability to accept food without vomiting.


Heatstroke in pets

Dogs and cats, as well as farm animals or horses, can also suffer from heatstroke. Symptoms to watch for in domesticated animals exposed to extreme heat include heavy panting, discolored tongue and gums, vomiting, extreme thirst, difficulty walking and general disorientation. Of course, it is especially important that people not leave their pets locked in cars on excessively hot days, as temperatures inside a vehicle with the windows rolled up most of the way can rise to intolerable levels within a very brief period of time. Despite these warnings, pets and children die needlessly every year because they are left in cars for, “just a second while Mommy runs in the store to quickly buy something.”



The best way to avoid the dangers of heatstroke is to use caution when going outside on days where the heat index is high. Exercise should only be practiced in moderation, in the early morning or evening hours when the heat is not as scorching. The activities of children and pets on hot days should be strictly monitored to make sure that heat exposure is limited. And perhaps the most important thing to remember for anyone who needs to be or wants to be outside on a hot day is that there is no such thing as drinking too much water.

Heatstroke can be avoided by taking sensible precautions, and by going inside and cooling down immediately if any symptoms of heat sickness become apparent. Heatstroke is a deadly condition but it is also entirely preventable.

The Health Local Staff is a team of writers and experts dedicated to bringing you the latest health, nutrition and lifestyle information at www.healthlocal.ca.