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Heat-Related Deaths Are On the Rise — These 6 Expert Tips Can Reduce the Risk of Heatstroke

Plus, what to do in an emergency

During the spring and summer, we love being outside. The sun’s warm rays feel good on our skin and the long days allow us to work and play for hours. Unfortunately, the things that make this time of year great also present a risk: heatstroke. This is a risk both for people spending time outside as well as those who don’t have air conditioning in the home. Here, we provide tips for preventing heatstroke and explain what to do if you or a loved one develops symptoms of a heat-related illness.

What is heatstroke?

Heatstroke is the most severe type of heat-related illness, a condition that occurs when your body can’t cool down. If your body temperature continues to rise, either because of warm weather or intense physical activity, your internal thermometer becomes overwhelmed and stops functioning properly.

“Normally, the body cools itself by sweating,” explains Dahlia Philips, MD, a practicing physician and the Medical Director at MetroPlusHealth. “However, this might not be enough in extremely hot conditions.”

Things get especially dicey when “a person’s body temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit,” says Gabriella Miller, MD, an emergency medicine physician and clinical instructor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. Without taking steps to cool down quickly, heatstroke can damage your brain and other vital organs, resulting in severe medical complications or death.

Because of its name, many people assume that heatstroke is a type of stroke, but that isn’t the case. A stroke occurs when a brain blood vessel bursts or gets blocked by a clot, cutting off oxygen to the brain. Sometimes, strokes and heatstrokes present related symptoms, like confusion and difficulty speaking, for example, but that’s where the similarities end. (More on that below.)

Heatstroke symptoms

Knowing how to identify the symptoms of heatstroke could save your life. Steven Maher, MD, an emergency medicine physician at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona, says heatstroke symptoms include:

  • High body temperature (104° Fahrenheit or greater)
  • Hot, red and dry skin
  • Fast pulse
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Extreme thirst
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Dry, swollen tongue

In severe cases, it can cause a loss of consciousness, organ damage and death.

Anyone can experience heatstroke, but it’s more common in specific groups. For example, Dr. Miller says “infants, young children and the elderly are most vulnerable to heat stroke.” That’s because “these age groups have difficulty controlling body temperature in extreme environmental conditions (both hot and cold).”

See also: Bothered by Red, Itchy Skin on Hot Days? Doctors Share How To Get Rid of a Heat Rash Quickly

What to do if you think you have heatstroke

Heatstroke is considered a medical emergency, so if you or a loved one develop symptoms, immediately call 911.

In the meantime, “try to bring the person’s body temperature down,” Dr. Miller says. “Consider applying ice packs to areas like the palms and soles of the hands and feet, in the armpits or behind the neck.” These spots have large blood vessels beneath the skin, making it easier to cool the blood, and ultimately, lower body temperature.

“If you have access to a kiddie pool or bathtub, fill it with ice water,” Dr. Miller continues. “Remove any heavy clothing and submerge as much of the person’s skin as possible, keeping their head above water.”

Other effective cooldown techniques if you notice heatstroke symptoms include moving to a shaded area (if you’re outside), positioning a fan to increase air circulation (if you’re at home) and using wet towels instead of ice packs. Regardless of the approach, the goal remains the same: bring body temperature back to normal.

Black woman sitting in front of a fan to cool off to prevent heatstroke symptoms
Dima Berlin/Getty

6 ways to prevent heatstroke

Considering the risks heatstroke presents, it’s best to try and prevent it altogether. Thankfully, this is possible. Here are 6 expert-approved tips:

1. Determine your heatstroke risk

Heatstroke is more common in the young and elderly, but no one is immune. As a result, Dr. Miller recommends scheduling a pre-summer checkup with your primary care doctor, especially if you have a chronic medical condition or take multiple medications.

Dr. Philips agrees, adding that certain drugs, like diuretics, beta-blockers, antihistamines, amphetamines and other stimulants can increase heatstroke susceptibility. “With the increase in prescription ADHD medications in children and adults this is important to keep in mind,” she says. “Stimulants increase internal body temperature and metabolic rate, which can add to heat stress.”

During your appointment, tell your doctor how much time you spend outside and the activities you enjoy. They can make personalized preventive recommendations to minimize your risk of heat-related illness.

2. Ease into the season

It might be hot outside, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend all your time indoors. Soaking up the sun’s warm rays is important (and good for you). You just need to be strategic.

Dr. Miller’s advice: “Start exercising or doing outdoor activities in the heat incrementally.” By gradually transitioning to a summer routine, your body can better adjust to the rising temperatures without them overwhelming your system.

Start by spending about 30 minutes outside at first and slowly increasing the time if you’re healthy and don’t have underlying medical conditions. Dr. Miller says most folks can safely spend up to two hours in the summer sun by taking frequent breaks and staying hydrated.

3. Quench your thirst

Working and playing outside in the heat cause you to sweat more than usual. “Your body loses water through sweat as it tries to cool down, and it needs to be replenished to maintain healthy bodily functions,” Dr. Philips says.

Always carry a water bottle if you’re going outdoors, and drink from it throughout the day. “After the second or third bottle of water, you can add in something like an electrolyte drink,” Dr. Maher suggests. “These help maintain essential minerals like salt, that we lose when we sweat.”

Another good idea: Avoid drinks with added sugars or caffeine, because they increase the risk of dehydration. “It’s crucial to drink water even before you feel thirsty,” Dr. Philips adds. While thirst indicates you’re getting too hot, it doesn’t always happen until you’re already dehydrated. Don’t worry about drinking a specific amount of water. Instead, focus on staying hydrated throughout the day as it significantly reduces your risk of overheating.

Related: Dehydration Can Be a Sneaky Cause of High Blood Pressure — Here’s How To Replenish Fluids Fast

Mature woman drinking water after noticing heatstroke symptoms

4. Think like a lizard

Desert-dwelling animals, like lizards and kangaroo rats, spend the hottest part of the day hiding from the sun. When it comes to heatstroke prevention, this is a great strategy to emulate!

“Pay attention to the weather and the time of day,” says Amy Offutt, MD, a practicing physician and president of ILADS. “If at risk, try to be outdoors earlier or later in the day when the heat is less intense.”

Dr. Philips echoes this advice. “Try to schedule activities such as exercise, gardening or other physical labor for cooler parts of the day. It’s typically hottest between 10 am and 4 pm, so limiting exposure during these times can reduce your risk of overheating.”

Not everyone’s schedule can accommodate this approach, so if you have to go outside during peak sun hours, dress strategically (more on that below).

5. Keep outfits light and loose

When selecting outfits to prevent heatstroke, keep two adjectives in mind: light and loose. Dark colors, like black, absorb the sun’s UV rays and cause your body temperature to rise, so you want to wear clothes that have the opposite effect.

Choosing the right fabric is just as crucial. “Consider wearing clothing made of thin materials with a more open knit, like cotton or linen,” Dr. Miller says. Another option is to buy clothing with built-in ‘moisture-wicking’ technology. “[This] moves sweat away from your skin and prevents it from saturating the fabric, which can help you feel cool and comfortable,” Dr. Maher explains.

Related: 6 Breathable Linen Dresses That Will Keep You Cool All Year

6. Crank up the A/C

Most cases of heatstroke occur outdoors, during triple-digit temperatures, but it can happen inside, too. “Staying in air-conditioned spaces is one of the most effective ways to keep your body cool,” Dr. Philips says.

She’s right! Research in the Journal of Political Economy found that air conditioning has reduced the risk of heat-related deaths by nearly 80% since 1960. Moreover, studies suggest that air conditioning prevents more than 190,000 heat-related deaths each year.

No air conditioning? That’s OK! Dr. Philips suggests several alternatives, including running fans, keeping the blinds and curtains closed to block out direct sunlight, and taking cool showers or baths to lower your body temperature.

For more ways to soothe (and prevent) summer health hassles:

Is Your Mosquito Bite Infected? How To Tell if It’s Cellulitis + Ways To Speed Healing

A Top Sunburn Self-Care Remedy May Already Be in Your Fridge — Plus See What Doctors Say To Skip

How to Spot Skin Cancer on the Scalp (Hint: Your Hair Stylist Can Help) + 4 Ways To Cut Your Risk

This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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