Explained: What is a Heatstroke? How Do You Avoid It?

With the onset of summers in northern India, drinking water and keeping yourself hydrated is more than a simple beauty tip. It’s one of the most important things that you can do to protect yourself, and health experts cannot emphasise it enough.

A common and potentially life threatening health situation you need to safeguard yourself against is a heatstroke. While the condition can often be oversimplified as dehydration, there’s more to it.

Dr Manoj Sharma, Senior Consultant, Internal Medicine, Fortis Escorts Heart Institute, says that simply put, a heatstroke refers to a situation where the body temperature is higher than 104 degree Fahrenheit.

Also Read: When Deadly Summers Get Deadlier, Here’s How to Beat the Heat

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Dehydration is NOT a Heatstroke

Stay hydrated to avoid dehydration and the heat syndrome.

Dr Sharma points out that people often have a tendency to term any dehydration related symptom a heatstroke which is incorrect.

"A heatstroke is a very serious condition. Sometimes what people call a heatstroke is often a heat syndrome. A heat syndrome has several symptoms." - Dr Manoj Sharma 

A heat syndrome is marked by sweating profusely, fall in blood pressure, heat cramps and dehydration which can include nausea, dizziness, weakness and lethargy. However in all of this, consciousness remains normal. When confusion and unconsciousness enter the picture, it suggests a heatstroke and is cause for alarm.

What Happens During a Heatstroke?

The body tries to bring down the temperature by sweating.

Since there is a rise in the body temperature during a heatstroke, the body tries to control it.

As a result, there is an increase in vasoconstriction - the constriction of blood vessels which attempts to increase the body’s already low blood pressure.

Dr Sharma points out that a fall in sweating, which also happens during a heatstroke, will also cause the body temperature to rise. Sweating is a protective mechanism which gets affected during a heatstroke.

Dr Narinder Pal Singh, Medical Director and Senior Director, Internal Medicine, Max Hospital, explains it further in the following manner:

"During high heat loads, blood flow to the skin increases manifold. The body normally cools itself by sweating. But under some conditions, sweating just isn’t enough. Several factors affect the body’s ability to cool itself during extremely hot weather. When the humidity is high, sweat will not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from releasing heat quickly."

Beyond a fall in sweating, a heatstroke also includes other severe effects on the body in the form of muscular damage and ill-effects on the brain that may lead to seizure, unconsciousness, coma and even death.

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Who is More Prone to it?

Children are especially prone to heatstrokes.

Anyone engaging in a strenuous activity in a hot environment is exposed to the possibility of a heatstroke, says Dr Sharma. Additionally, prolonged exposure to heat is another cause.

Dr Singh adds:

"While heatstrokes often take place when a person’s body gets too hot, most often they happen when people exercise in very hot and humid weather without drinking enough fluids. But a heatstroke can also occur in people who are not exercising." - Dr Narinder Pal Singh

In case of babies, young children or the elderly (especially those over the age of 65), especial care is needed to avoid a heatstroke.

Also, anyone who is on medication for a mental illness, diabetes, blood pressure or someone who consumes too much alcohol or is obese is left more vulnerable to it.

How Can We Preempt a Heatstroke and Avoid it?

Coconut water is a good option in case of an approaching heatstroke.

Dr Sharma suggests that a heatstroke builds gradually. The initial symptoms would appear as mild exposure to heat in the form of confusion, agitation, slurred speech, muscle cramps, nausea, irritability and lethargy. Your heartbeat and breathing may become rapid and shallow as well.

Dr Singh mentions physiological symptoms to pay attention to.

"In a heatstroke brought on by hot weather, your skin will feel hot and dry to the touch. However, in heatstroke brought on by strenuous exercise, your skin may  slightly moist. A core body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher is the main sign of heatstroke." - Dr Narinder Pal Singh

The idea is to address these symptoms before they progress to a heatstroke. Dr Sharma lists them down in the following manner:

  • Avoid heat exposure
  • Defer strenuous activities to cooler times of the day
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol
  • Avoid being in a hot car
  • Stay hydrated
  • Wear loose fitting clothes that are light-coloured
  • Cover yourself with umbrellas, caps or loose wraps when stepping outdoors

The Moderus Operandi When a Stroke Has Ocurred

"If someone has been struck by it, the first and the foremost thing is to bring down the temperature of the body by whatever means. Do it by cool-sponging the forehead, groin and armpits. Use ice too if need be. Move them to a cooler place - under a fan or an air-conditioned environment." - Dr Manoj Sharma

If the person is physically capable, make them take a bath, or wrap them in a wet bedsheet, if they’re not, he adds. If they’re conscious, they should be hydrated and made to drink water.

Dr Singh says:

"Apply cool or tepid water to the skin, fan the person to promote sweating and evaporation. Monitor body temperature with a thermometer and continue cooling efforts until the body temperature drops to 101-102 F (38.3 to 38.8 C). Always notify emergency services immediately. If their arrival is delayed, they can give you further instructions for treatment."

The doctor has a word of caution with this advice - to avoid sugary drinks.

"It’s important to provide the patient with water and electrolytes, but stay away from energy and sugary drinks. Instead, opt for fresh lime or coconut water." - Dr Manoj Sharma

A heatstroke leads to increase in the osmolality of the blood, the blood becomes thicker. Consequently, concentrated drinks won’t help to thin it. Water is your best bet or a fluid rich in electrolytes.

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