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What is, and who is at risk for heat stroke?

Heat stroke is a form of hyperthermia or heat-related illness, an abnormally elevated body temperature with accompanying physical symptoms including changes in the nervous system function. Unlike heat cramps and heat exhaustion, two other forms of hyperthermia that are less severe, heat stroke is a true medical emergency that is often fatal if not properly and promptly treated. Heat stroke is also sometimes referred to as heatstroke or sun stroke. Severe hyperthermia is defined as a body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher.

The body normally generates heat as a result of metabolism, and is usually able to dissipate the heat by radiation of heat through the skin or by evaporation of sweat. However, in extreme heat, high humidity, or vigorous physical exertion under the sun, the body may not be able to sufficiently dissipate the heat and the body temperature rises, sometimes up to 106 F (41.1 C) or higher. Another cause of heat stroke is dehydration. A dehydrated person may not be able to sweat fast enough to dissipate heat, which causes the body temperature to rise.

Heat stroke is not the same as a stroke. "Stroke" is the general term used to describe decreased oxygen flow to an area of the brain.

Those most susceptible (at risk) individuals to heat stroke include:

  • Infants
  • The elderly (often with associated heart diseases, lung diseases, kidney diseases, or who are taking medications that make them vulnerable to dehydration and heat strokes)
  • Athletes
  • Individuals who work outside and physically exert themselves under the sun
  • Infants, children, or pets left in cars.

Heat stroke is sometimes classified as exertional heat stroke (EHS, which is due to overexertion in hot weather) or non-exertional heat stroke (NEHS, which occurs in climactic extremes and affects the elderly, infants, and chronically ill.

Return to Heat Stroke

See what others are saying

Comment from: 19-24 Female (Patient) Published: May 19

When I was fifteen I suffered a heat stroke in marching band camp. Just yesterday I believe I suffered from heat exhaustion. I work in a restaurant and I had to do my work and another co-worker's duties that she wasn"t able to do. I had been moving nonstop for 6 hours, lifting and carrying heavy items and making food for our dinner rush. I was sweaty, felt very hot and my heart rate was very high. I had very little to eat or drink and only took a five minute break. After I got home and showered I had a migraine and could not sleep. This morning I woke up with the migraine behind my eyes and have had vomiting and diarrhea all day.

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Comment from: kathy zeigker, 13-18 Female (Patient) Published: May 06

When I was 16, I spent some time in the sun but didn't get a sun burn. We went to dinner and were talking to another couple when I said I didn't feel good. Then suddenly everything went black, I went limp, and I couldn't move. I was paralyzed � I couldn't talk, see, or hear. We went to the hospital and they put me in a cold room for what seems like a long time. I never went to sleep and was awake the whole time. I finally began to move around again. They sent me home with salt tablets and told me I should not get out of bed for three days. It was terrible. This has never happened to me again, but I'd really like an answer to this. I had no warning � it hit me fast, and was such a bad feeling. I can't believe that was a heat stroke.

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