What is sunstroke? Advice from RWJBarnabas


2 minute read

New Jersey is experiencing a late-season heatwave, and temperatures are expected to reach their highest levels of the year in some areas. This is a dangerous time for people, especially those who are older, younger, or have underlying health conditions.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that heat-related illness sends more than 67,500 people to the emergency room each year, and can be fatal.

Christopher Freer, M.D., senior vice president of emergency and hospital medicine at RWJBarnabas Health, discusses the symptoms of common heat-related illnesses, how to prevent them, and when to seek medical care.

Types of heat-related illnesses

There are three main forms of heat illness to watch out for: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. It’s important to be careful in the heat to help avoid these three things.

What are heat cramps?

Heat cramps are muscle spasms that usually affect the arms, legs, or stomach. It occurs when fluids and salts lost due to excessive sweating are not replaced. Although heat cramps can be very painful, they usually do not lead to permanent damage.

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is a more serious condition that occurs when sweating causes the body to lose water and salt (electrolytes), resulting in low blood volume.

Signs of heat exhaustion

Symptoms of heat exhaustion often include:

  • headache
  • Excessive sweating
  • Extreme thirst
  • Dizziness or fatigue
  • Loss of coordination and appetite
  • nausea
  • Cool and clammy skin
  • Weak and rapid pulse.

What is sunstroke?

Heatstroke is the most serious heat illness and causes the body’s most effective means of removing heat, which is sweat, to stop, and the body temperature to rise to critical levels. It may cause death if not treated immediately by a healthcare professional.

Symptoms of heatstroke

Symptoms of heatstroke may include:

  • High body temperature
  • Obvious absence of sweating
  • Dry, hot, red, or flushed skin
  • Pulse speed
  • difficulty breathing
  • headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • high blood pressure
  • Advanced symptoms may include seizures, convulsions, or loss of consciousness.

Who is most at risk of heat-related illness?

Population groups most at risk of suffering from heat-related illnesses include:

  • the elderly
  • Outdoor workers
  • Children: Their bodies regulate heat differently than adults and may fail to notice signs of heat-related illness.

What should you do if you or someone else has a heat-related illness?

If you suspect that you or someone you know is suffering from any heat-related illness, it is essential to seek immediate medical attention.

How to avoid heat-related illness

Ways you can help avoid heat-related illness include:

  • Drink plenty of fluids. If you wait until you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Electrolyte drinks are good for replacing water and minerals lost through sweating.
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks and caffeine
  • Wear sunscreen. Sunburn will inhibit your skin’s ability to sweat.
  • Take cool baths or showers. Cold water lowers body temperature 25 times faster than cold air.
  • Wear light, loose clothing.
  • Avoid hot foods and heavy meals.
  • Stay in air-conditioned areas. If your home doesn’t have air conditioning, spend some time at a public utility or cooling center.

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