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What is heatstroke? Symptoms and treatment for this deadly heat-related illness

High temperatures around the United States broke records this summer, which are expected to continue for the rest of the season and, because of global warming, for years to come. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Earth’s temperature is warming twice as fast as in 1981.

An average of 1,300 people in the United States die due to extreme heat-related illnesses, including heatstroke, the Environmental Protection Agency reports. During one of the hottest summers in the Earth’s history, it's crucial to know the risks of being out in the heat for too long. 

What is heatstroke?

The CDC describes heatstroke as “the most serious heat-related illness.” Heatstroke occurs when outside temperatures overwhelm your body so much that it can no longer adapt and cool down, which could be fatal.

Dr. Eleni Horattas is an emergency medicine physician at the Cleveland Clinic. She says that heat exhaustion and heatstroke are along the same spectrum of heat illnesses. Heatstroke is the most extreme heat illness because “your internal system is overwhelmed and can’t adapt anymore,” Horattas said.

“That intrinsic system that offloads heat is no longer working. (Patients) are actually very hot, their skin looks red, they are very dry,” Horattas said. “Those neurological systems or their mental status changes due to the increased core temperature.”

Protect yourself from extreme heat:4 experts tips to keep you and your family cool

What are the symptoms of heatstroke?

The most significant signs of experiencing heatstroke are mental status changes including confusion, agitation and feeling combative. In some cases, patients may experience seizures or lose consciousness.

A body experiencing heatstroke will also stop sweating because it has exhausted all options to cool itself down. As a result, other organs will begin to fail, which may lead to increased body temperature, increased heart rate, low blood pressure and decreased urine production. 

Symptoms of heatstroke will look different for every person depending on their health and age. 

“Somebody who’s young, healthy with no other medical problems is going to look a little bit different than either a small child or elderly person who maybe has a lot of medical problems and is on a lot of medicines that affect those symptoms and how the body is able to adapt to heat,” Horattas said.

The Cleveland Clinic reports that if a body experiencing heatstroke is left untreated, an individual may develop the following complications:

  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome
  • Brain swelling
  • Kidney failure
  • Liver failure
  • Metabolic dysfunction
  • Nerve damage
  • Reduced blood flow to the heart and other circulatory problems

Heat exhaustion vs. heatstroke

While heat exhaustion and heatstroke are both types of hyperthermia, heat exhaustion may lead to heatstroke if left untreated. They have symptoms that differentiate them from each other. 

Heat exhaustion:

  • Dizziness
  • Excessive sweating
  • Clammy, pale skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Quick, weak pulse
  • Muscle cramps


  • Pulsating headache
  • Hot, red, dry skin
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Quick, weak pulse
  • Unconsciousness 
  • Confusion
  • Seizures

Read more:How to keep cool and recognize the warnings signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke

How to treat heatstroke

Medical professionals do not suggest treating heatstroke at home and it is considered a medical emergency. If you believe someone is experiencing heatstroke, contact medical responders immediately and seek professional help. 

“(Heatstroke) is not something that we would ever recommend or advise treating at home,” Horattas said. “That is a ‘time is ticking’ situation essentially where your body’s temperature and your organs are suffering because of it so you need to get to a hospital.”

At the hospital, you can expect doctors to begin slowly cooling the patient down placing ice packs under armpits and in the groin area. Doctors will also remove clothing to allow for more cool air to hit the body. 

This must be a slow, gradual process because quickly cooling the body may result in a patient shivering. This is the body’s way of warming itself up in the cold and in this case, would be working against the patient’s needs. 

If you are waiting to be helped by a medical professional, Horattas suggests taking sips of water or sports drinks, staying out of the sun and making note of symptoms. 

How to prevent heatstroke

Infants, children, elderly people and adults who work outdoors are most at risk of experiencing heatstroke. As temperatures continue to rise, here are some ways experts at the Cleveland Clinic suggest to prevent heatstroke:

  • Avoid outdoor activities in the sun during hot temperatures
  • Drink sports beverages, lightly salted water or broth
  • Slowly acclimate your body to warmer temperatures over time before doing so for work or sports
  • Do not leave pets or children in locked cars or other small spaces
  • Stay in air-conditioned or well-ventilated areas during high temperatures
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing in the heat

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