First Aid for a Heat Stroke

A young girl suffering from heatstroke by some fountains

A heat stroke, also known as a sun stroke, is the most dangerous form of heat injury, capable of causing severe and lasting damage to vital organs and even resulting in death. Time is of the essence when treating it: although heat stroke requires immediate professional attention — dialing 911 should be your first step — there are first aid steps you should take while waiting for paramedics to arrive in order to minimize the risk of complications.

A heat stroke is the result of the body overheating to the point that our natural regulatory system can no longer cope, and cannot cool itself. For that reason, it’s essential to help lower the patient’s body temperature as much as possible, as quickly as possible.  First, move them out of the sun and into a shady, preferably cool or air-conditioned area.

Next, apply cool water to their body: you can use a spray bottle, a gentle hose, cold, wet cloths, or ice packs — whatever you have available — to get them wet. You can also cover the person in a cool, wet sheet or other cloth.  Focusing ice packs or cold cloths on the neck, armpits, and groin (areas with a high concentration of blood vessels) can help speed the cooling process, as does fanning the person; the air flow wicks the moisture away from the skin, helping to cool the body, just like the process of sweating.

Since dehydration is very often a factor in heat stroke, there’s a good chance the patient may be dehydrated. Giving them cool water to sip slowly may help, however, you will need to take precautions:  make sure they’re in an upright position, and don’t give them water if they seem dazed or otherwise unalert, is unresponsive, or if they have vomited. Do not give them any drink containing caffeine or alcohol, even if it’s cold.

Do not give them medication such as aspirin or ibuprofen in an attempt to lower their body temperature;  these medications cause bad reactions because of the way the body reacts to the heat stroke.

If the person begins vomiting, turn them on their side to keep their airway open. If they become unconscious and don’t show signs of breathing, begin CPR and continue until emergency personnel arrive.

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