Our bodies are designed to handle the heat. But high temps and overexertion can push them to the limit, leading to dangerous, potentially deadly heatstroke.
So what, exactly, is heatstroke, and how does it happen?
The body reacts to hot conditions by sending messages to the blood vessels, telling them to dilate. This sends warm blood, fluids and salts to the skin, setting off the process of evaporation. But after prolonged heat exposure, the body sweats so much that it depletes itself of fluids and salts.
"Problems occur when a person is in the heat for a long time or in such extremes of heat or humidity that the evaporation process fails," says Edward Ward, MD, an emergency medicine specialist at Rush University Medical Center.
Signs of heatstroke
How do you know if it's heatstroke? Look for the following symptoms:
- A body temperature above 103 degrees
- Red, hot, dry skin
- A rapid, strong heartbeat
- A throbbing headache
Getting help for heatstroke
Heatstroke is a life-threatening emergency. If you have these symptoms, you need to cool down quickly while you or someone else calls for help.
"One of the most effective ways to cool down is to spray or douse your body with water and sit by a fan to kick-start the evaporation process," Ward says. "This will help decrease your temperature while you are waiting for medical assistance."
An ounce of prevention
Because heatstroke is so serious, Ward strongly advises focusing on prevention. This is especially true for people age 65 and older, who are at higher risk for heat illness simply because the regulating mechanism becomes less effective with time.
Cardiovascular and neurological conditions also increase the risk for heatstroke, as do medications that interfere with the body's ability to sweat properly, such as antipsychotics and antispasmodics.
People with these conditions or on these medications should pay special attention to the weather and the heat index — the combination of heat and humidity. If temperatures rise, drink lots of fluids and stay in a cool place.
"If you're worried or think you're having problems because of the heat, try to contact your primary care doctor," Ward says. "But if it's a real crisis, go to the emergency room. We'd much rather see you sooner than later."