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Your body stays cool by sweating and releasing heat through your skin. Prolonged exposure to high temperatures can cause this cooling system to fail. When this occurs, you stop sweating and your body temperature may rise to very high levels. In severe cases, your brain and other vital organs may shut down. This is known as heatstroke. Unless your body is cooled, death can occur within minutes. Heatstroke can be seen in young athletes performing intense workouts in the hot summer months (exertional heatstroke) as well as elderly persons who have lost their air conditioning during a heat wave (nonexertional heatstroke).

Symptoms of heatstroke

  • Confusion

  • Fainting

  • Body temperature of 104°F (40°C) or higher

  • Hot, dry skin

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Rapid heartbeat

  • Quick, shallow breathing

  • Loss of balance and coordination

  • Seizures

When to go to the emergency room (ER)

Man talking on phone.
Don't ignore symptoms of heatstroke – get help right away.

Heatstroke is an extreme medical emergency.

Call 911 right away. Until help arrives, move the affected person into the shade or at least away from the heat source. Remove the person’s clothing, fan the person, and apply cool water or wet towels or sheets. If available, apply ice or cold packs to armpits and groin. Cover the ice or packs with a cloth before applying. Change the towels and sheets when they are no longer cool. Continue these activities until help arrives.

What to expect in the ER

  • To cool the body, lukewarm water may be sprayed over the body and large fans may be used to blow air over the damp skin. Ice packs wrapped in a cloth may be applied to the neck, armpits, and groin. Cooling blankets may also be used.

  • In severe cases, tubes may be used to flush the stomach, the rectum, or both with cool liquid.

  • Intravenous fluids will likely be given. These help cool the body and replenish fluids.

  • Blood and urine tests will likely be done. These can help detect damage to organs, especially the kidneys.

Online Medical Reviewer: Eric Perez MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Kenny Turley PA-C
Online Medical Reviewer: Maryann Foley RN BSN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2020
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