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Heat-stress illnesses need quick treatment

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Second in a two-part series.

When exposed to hot conditions, your body may have trouble regulating its temperature. When your body overheats, some form of heat stress occurs. Whether mild, moderate or severe, heat stress can come on suddenly and be dangerous to your health.

But if you are prepared, you can "keep your cool" and be of assistance to those affected by two serious heat-related illnesses: heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Heat exhaustion is one of the most common heat-related illnesses. Two types of heat exhaustion exist: (1) water depletion or severe dehydration and (2) salt depletion or water intoxication. Most cases are a combination of these two types.

Water depletion or severe dehydration — the medical term is hypernatrimia — involves excessive water loss. It results from lack of adequate water replacement by individuals exposed to heat stress. Persons at risk include military recruits, laborers and individuals without access to water.

Because these victims are not drinking enough water, they will be thirsty, fatigued, have a headache and nausea. The symptoms are similar to the flu. Fainting may also occur.

If you come across someone suffering from heat exhaustion, move the victim from the hot environment; cool with moist towels, fans, etc.; administer fluids.

Salt depletion or water intoxication — medically known as hyponatrimia — involves excessive sodium loss. These cases involve excessive sweating with large amounts of water consumed (more than one quart per hour). Because of the large amount of water being drunk, these victims will frequently urinate. They may have seizures, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, chills and dizziness.

To treat this condition, move the victim from the hot environment; cool with moist towels, fans, etc.; DO NOT administer fluids; give salt to eat.

Heatstroke is a rare but lethal environmental emergency. Death rates range between 10 percent to 75 percent. If untreated, all victims die.

Heatstroke victims have been exposed to a hot environment. Victims will display extremely hot skin — usually dry, but it may be moist — and altered mental status.

Heatstroke is classified as either classic or exertional, with the number of classic cases outnumbering exertional. Classic heatstroke tends to involve older individuals, individuals in rooms or homes with minimal air movement, infants, individuals with chronic illnesses (especially psychiatric conditions) and individuals without access to water. More than 50 percent of classic cases involve individuals over age 55. Exertional heatstroke is more common among younger and healthy individuals who are involved in strenuous physical activities.

Heatstroke is a medical emergency and must be treated rapidly! Here's what to do:

1. Immediately move the victim out of the heat to a cool place.

2. If the victim has stopped breathing, give rescue breathing. If the heart has stopped, administer CPR.

3. Remove victim's clothing down to underwear.

4. Call the emergency medical telephone number (usually 911), even if the victim seems to be recovering.

5. Cool the victim quickly by any means possible:

Apply ice bags against the skin in the groin, armpits and sides of the neck.

Place in cool water

Spray the victim with water and fan it. This method is not effective in high humidity (greater than 75 percent).


Alton Thygerson, professor of health sciences at Brigham Young University, is the National Safety Council's first-aid and CPR author and technical consultant.