Don't get struck by heat stroke

By: Ashley Newport Jul 12, 2010

Going to be spending time outdoors this summer? Here's how to protect yourself from heat stroke

In Las Vegas, water peddlers often encourage sun-weary tourists to buy discounted bottled water by chanting, “don’t let dehydration ruin your vacation.”  The poetic salespeople have a point. Dehydration can ruin your vacation – but only if you let it.

Heat stroke is a common but potentially fatal illness that most often affects those who work and play outdoors for prolonged periods. It is different from heat exhaustion, which is less serious and often a result of exerting oneself in hot conditions. Heat stroke, however, can occur when you spend too much time in a hot or unventilated environment and can quickly become a medical emergency if untreated. It strikes when the body overheats to a point where you stop sweating and become dizzy, nauseated or unconscious.

“The normal body temperature is 37 degrees Celsius,” says St. John Ambulance trainer Richard Solowski. “If it goes three degrees higher, you’ll get heat stroke.”

How to tell if it's heat stroke

The symptoms can include hot, dry, flushed skin, noisy breathing, restlessness, headache, fatigue, “bouncing” veins, dizziness, nausea, vomiting, convulsions and unconsciousness. Fortunately, the serious effects can be prevented or alleviated by quick action. 

“Lead the person to a cool or shaded area, remove excess or layered clothing, and cover in cool sheets,” says Solowski.

It may also help to sponge a heat stroke victim with cool water, especially in the neck, armpits and groin areas. Some may benefit from a cool – but not ice cold – bath. If you or the victim are experiencing serious symptoms (vomiting or convulsions), immediate medical intervention is necessary. If you experience symptoms while alone, get to a cool, shaded area and call for help.

Fortunately, heat stroke can be prevented on even the most scorching summer days.

“Don’t do strenuous exercise when it’s too hot,” says Joanne Banfield, a former nurse and current injury prevention manager at Sunnybrook Hospital. “Keep well hydrated. If you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated.”

Be sure to limit caffeine and alcohol when the sun is at its strongest, and stick to water or other fluids rich in electrolytes, like sports drinks. Stay in the shade when you can, wear a hat, and take frequent breaks if you’re working outdoors for long hours.

“Some people are more susceptible,” says Banfield, “such as seniors, young children, the health compromised, fair-skinned people, and seasonal outdoor workers.” If you or someone you know falls into any of these categories, limit the amount of time you spend toiling or relaxing outside.

Ashley Newport is a freelance journalist based in Toronto – well, in a city a little west of Toronto. She’s been writing for two years about almost everything. Her favourite topics include politics, society, entertainment, food and health. She loves to find out new things about nutrition, because she knows how important it is to know more about the health benefits of the foods you love. Her work can be found in Foodservice and Hospitality Magazine and a small Oakville community online paper located somewhere in cyberspace (Google Ashley to find it!).