CPR First Aid

Heatstroke – What is it?

Heatstroke – What is it

What is Heatstroke?

Signs of heatstroke and emergency response steps.

During the warmer months of the year, particularly in Australia’s scorching heat, it’s important to be aware of the first aid treatment for Heatstroke, and possible ways to prevent it.

Heatstroke is a life-threatening condition in which the body’s ability to maintain a healthy temperature no longer works and it because of this, it overheats. You can avoid heatstroke by taking precautions in very hot weather.

Heatstroke occurs when a person’s body temperature rises from about 37°C to above 40.5°C. It is sometimes called hyperthermia (not hypothermia, which occurs when the body’s temperature drops significantly due to prolonged exposure to extreme cold).

Heatstroke needs immediate first aid to lower the body temperature as quickly as possible. Dehydration and heat exhaustion are milder types of heat-related illnesses.

Illustration showing symptoms of heatstroke.

Symptoms of Heatstroke

If exposed to heat and high temperatures, the early heat-related illness is heat exhaustion. This happens when a person’s core body temperature rises to 38-39°C. The symptoms of heat exhaustion include excessive sweating, dizziness, fatigue, muscle cramps, and headaches just to name a few.

If exposure to humid weather and heat waves continue, it may turn into heatstroke. The signs and symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • a rapid pulse, increased heart rate, and shallow rapid breathing
  • trouble speaking, slurred speech
  • problems concentrating or coordinating movements
  • aggressive or strange behaviour
  • dizziness, confusion, seizures or loss of consciousness
  • sudden rise in body temperature
  • hot, red, and dry skin, possibly with no sweat
  • a heat rash characterised by red spots or blisters
  • dry, swollen tongue
  • headache, nausea or vomiting
  • intense thirst
  • the casualty may also fall unconscious

Causes of Heatstroke

Heatstroke is caused by prolonged exposure to heat or a hot environment. You can get heatstroke inside or outside, including by exercising in the heat.

You are more likely than others to get heatstroke if you have the following risk factors:

  • over 75 or very young children
  • pregnant or breastfeeding
  • overweight
  • working or partaking in physical activity in hot conditions
  • affected by chronic diseases or health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes
  • taking certain medications such as diuretics and stimulants to the central nervous system

Treating heatstroke: Quick guide with essential steps.

Treating Heatstroke

  1. Follow DRS ABCD
    • Call 000 – Heatstroke is a medical emergency. If someone has heatstroke call triple zero (000), seek medical help and ask for an ambulance
    • Remove from the heat source – remove the casualty from exposure to extreme heat to a shadier and/or cool place
    • Follow the steps for Lowering Body Temperature
    • If unconscious place them in the recovery position – for unconscious casualties, place them on their side with their mouth down (to drain any fluid) and the chin up to prevent possible suffocation. If conscious, give the person sips of cool fluid or cold water if possible.
    • Do not give aspirin or paracetamol to someone with heatstroke, this may make things worse.

Lowering Body Temperature:

  • removing excess clothing
  • stop any strenuous activity and remove oneself from the risk of heat. Continuation of these activities may result in exertional heatstroke as well.
  • sponging or spraying them with a cool shower of water, then fanning the damp skin
  • immersing them in cool water
  • placing ice packs under their armpits or groin, or on the back of their neck
  • drinking sports drinks to replace electrolytes

Infographic showing ways to prevent heatstroke.

Preventing Heatstroke

Heatstroke is linked to dehydration, so in hot conditions:

  • Drink plenty of water – even if you don’t feel thirsty. Avoid hot or sugary drinks.
  • Keep cool – try to avoid direct sun. Wear a hat and lightweight, loose-fitting, cotton clothing.
  • Keep your house cool – close windows shut curtains and blinds, and use air-conditioning if you have it.
  • Help others – visit or phone friends, family and neighbours who are more at risk. Keep children cool and give them lots to drink. Ensure pets have plenty of water and shade.
  • Have a plan – know who to call if you need help, and follow your doctor’s advice if you have any medical conditions.
  • Never leave babies, children or animals alone in a car.

Complications of Heatstroke

Heatstroke is a potentially life-threatening condition. The high body temperature in heatstroke can lead to organ damage and can cause existing conditions to worsen. In extreme cases, heatstroke can lead to death.

Learn about other first aid topics such as this in our nationally recognised First Aid course, recommended for anyone 14 years and older.

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