Man talking on phone.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. Heat stroke 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)

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 covered ice to armpits and groin. 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 and large fans may be used. Ice packs wrapped in a towel 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.