Heat stroke, also known as sunstroke, is a very serious form of heat injury, requiring emergency medical attention. They occur as a result of exposure to high temperature and prolonged stays in the sun, and often come along with dehydration. If not treated quickly, they can cause damage to the brain and other internal organs, as well as lead to death.
Heat stroke is caused by the body overheating past the point where it can regulate its own temperature. In some cases, it may reach a temperature as high as 104 degrees, which is the most dangerous point. This is usually caused by an excess of physical exertion in high heat, or from spending too much time in the sun, both of which only increase the body’s natural warming from exercise.
The condition is progressive, beginning with and worsening from other heat injuries: what begins as dehydration may lead to heat exhaustion, which can become heat stroke if left untreated. Early signs of sun stroke include a headache, flushed skin, or an increased heart rate; an altered mental state, such as confusion, irritability, or agitation; slurred speech and rapid, shallow breathing. Sweating can also be an important sign — there may be a lack of sweat despite the heat, or skin might feel clammy. Someone undergoing heat stroke may also experience nausea, vomiting, or heat cramps. At the more advanced stages, seizures may occur.
Immediate treatment is essential: the longer treatment for heat stroke is delayed, the more likely it is to cause permanent damage and serious complications. Vital organs, especially the brain, heart, and kidneys, are at a high risk for damage, as well as muscles and the central nervous system. This condition can also be fatal.
If you suspect someone of having a heat stroke, call 911 immediately and perform first aid by moving them to a cool, shady area and fanning them while dousing them with or immersing them in cold water. If possible, apply ice packs to the armpits, neck, back, and groin, areas which have a high concentration of blood vessels, and can provide for faster cooling.