Learn the causes, signs, and risks

Heat stroke is a medical emergency that occurs when the body can no longer cool itself. The body suffers from dehydration because it can’t release internal heat into the environment, resulting in core temperatures of over 104 degrees Fahrenheit. The scary part is that most people aren’t aware that they are in danger of heat stroke – the most severe heat-related illness – until it’s too late. And by then, they have become confused and delirious as a result of nerve damage. To reduce your risk of becoming ill, the first step is to become aware of heat stroke symptoms and the warning signs of heat-related illness. A quick diagnosis is crucial in order to avoid organ failure, cognitive impairment and death.

What is a heat stroke?

Heat stroke occurs when your body’s natural processes to regulate your core temperature begin to fail as you become overheated. Our bodies regulate our core temperature to maintain a constant temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit – even in the hottest or coldest environmental conditions. For this to be possible, our thermoregulatory system uses different physiological mechanisms to balance the heat produced inside the body and the amount of heat lost to the environment. When these mechanisms break down, heat stroke symptoms can occur.

When the body becomes overheated, it releases heat by sweating and activating the muscles in your skin. Your blood vessels also begin to swell, or dilate, causing your skin to look red. More warm blood then flows close to the surface of your skin so that heat is lost through the skin and into the air.

Muscles in your skin work to increase heat loss by causing your hairs to lay down flat, as opposed to raising them up in order to trap more warmth. Your skin glands also secrete sweat onto the surface of your skin to increase heat loss by evaporation. Your body will keep sweating, releasing internal heat, until your body temperature returns to normal.

The problem is when you sweat so much in an effort to cool down the body that you become dehydrated. When your body runs out of fluids to sweat out, and you haven’t been drinking enough water to supply more fluids, your body temperature will continue to rise. Then you may begin to notice heat stroke symptoms. Once your body’s core temperature rises, all of your innate processes that are in place to regulate your internal temperature break down, creating a serious problem.

Heat stroke symptoms 

Before heat stroke symptoms develop, you will experience a few warning signs. Generally, heat-related illnesses occur in four stages: beginning with muscle cramping, leading to heat exhaustion and ending with heat stroke. Here’s a breakdown of these four stages:

  1. Heat syncope (fainting): Heat syncope, or fainting, occurs when your body tries to cool itself, which causes your blood vessels to dilate so much that blood flow to your brain is reduced. This usually occurs when a person has been working outside or has been physically active in a hot environment. Besides fainting, a person experiencing heat syncope may feel dizzy, restless and nauseous.
  2. Heat cramps: Heat cramps, also known as muscle cramping, is one of the first signs of heat-related illness. You may feel as if you pulled a muscle, even though you weren’t doing anything strenuous. Muscle aches are a huge warning sign that you are dehydrated and need to get somewhere cool and drink water before your symptoms worsen.
  3. Heat exhaustion: Heat exhaustion happens when the heat begins to make you feel uncomfortable and ill, leading to symptoms such as heavy sweating, weakness, headache, changes in pulse, cold, pale and clammy skin, nausea, vomiting and fainting. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can advance to heat stroke.
  4. Heat stroke: Heat stroke is the most serious of all heat-related illnesses. It is a medical emergency because it can lead to serious brain damage, organ failure and even death. The most common heat stroke symptoms include:
  • body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit
  • rapid and strong pulse
  • shallow breathing
  • hot, red, dry or moist skin
  • severe headache
  • fatigue
  • minimal or no sweating, despite the heat
  • nausea and vomiting
  • muscle weakness
  • muscle cramps
  • dark-colored urine
  • delirium
  • confusion
  • seizures
  • unconsciousness

Heat stroke immediately affects your cognitive function and can lead to impairment. In fact, research shows that approximately 20 percent of patients who suffer from heat stroke have long-term, irreversible brain damage as a result. That’s why some of the most common heat stroke symptoms are delirium and confusion. Your nerve cells are particularly vulnerable when the body becomes overheated, and your brain is made up of these nerve cells. When the body overheats, the blood vessels dilate and blood flow increases, which also strains the heart.


7 natural ways to treat and prevent a heat stroke

  1. Drink plenty of water

The most important thing you can do to avoid heat stroke is to drink more water than you usually do because you are losing fluids through sweat. Drink two to four cups of water every hour when you are outside or exercising. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to start drinking water. By then, you are already becoming dehydrated and putting yourself at risk of heat stroke. Also, make sure that your children and others at a higher risk of heat stroke are drinking enough water throughout the day.

If you’re not a fan of drinking water all day, there are other beverages that will help you to stay hydrated. Try to make your own fruit smoothie or veggie juice. Sparkling water is a great option because it comes in several flavors. Kombucha is hydrating, and it supplies healthy probiotics. Adding sliced lemon, lime or even whole berries to your water can make the taste more satisfying.

  1. Eat hydrating foods

In order to avoid dehydration and the possibility of heat stroke, eat fruits and vegetables that are hydrating. They have a high-water content and contain valuable electrolytes. Some of the best hydrating foods to beat heat stroke symptoms include:

  • coconut water
  • watermelon
  • oranges
  • grapefruits
  • pineapple
  • berries
  • bananas
  • grapes
  • kiwi
  • cucumber
  • bell peppers
  • carrots
  • zucchini
  • avocado
  • tomatoes
  • radishes
  • iceberg lettuce
  • broccoli

These hydrating fruits and vegetables are full of important electrolytes like magnesium, potassium, calcium and sodium. Eating plenty of these foods will help you to stay hydrated and combat electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes help you to maintain fluid balance, keep blood pressure levels stable and help with nerve signaling – to name a few roles of these vital nutrients. You can become dehydrated more easily if you have an electrolyte imbalance. This increases your risk of developing heat stroke symptoms.

  1. Avoid sugary drinks, alcohol and caffeine

It’s important to prevent dehydration by avoiding the consumption of sugary, sweetened drinks, alcohol and caffeine. All of these dehydrating beverages cause increased urination and electrolyte loss. Plus, consuming too much sugar can lead to inflammation. This makes the symptoms of heat stroke even worse. Although sports drinks are marketed to keep you hydrated during physical activity, many of these products contain a ton of added sugars and synthetic flavorings. So, opt for natural electrolytes instead. Try coconut water or adding hydrating fruits to your water.

  1. Avoid direct sunlight

To avoid developing heat stroke or other heat-related illnesses, limit your time outdoors on those hot days, especially midday when the sun is at its hottest. If you’re outside on a very hot day, stay in the shade. If you’re in an open space, bring an umbrella for protection. For athletes who train outdoors, schedule your workouts earlier or later in the day when there are cooler temperatures.

  1. Stay in an air-conditioned building

You have to keep your body temperature cool during times of extreme heat. Using a fan, alone, as your cooling device isn’t going to be enough on those really hot days. You are going to need to stay in an air-conditioned home or building for as long as possible. If you don’t have access to an air-conditioner in your home, find an air-conditioned shelter in your community, and get some relief there for a few hours. Examples include shopping malls, movie theaters, local libraries, community centers and restaurants. Studies also show that opening windows and using fans at the same time can offer protection against heat stroke during a heat wave. But make sure you aren’t just circulating hot air, which can be dangerous.

Other ways to reduce your body temperature include taking a cool shower or bath, applying a cool compress to your head or the back of your neck, wearing lightweight and light-colored clothing and avoiding strenuous activity.

  1. Check your medications

Some medications can increase your risk of heat stroke because they affect how your body reacts to the heat, or they interfere with your salt and water balance. Medications that may alter your ability to deal with high temperatures include antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamines, drugs for heart disease, blood pressure and cholesterol, laxatives, diuretics and medications for seizures. If you’re taking any of these kinds of medications, talk to your doctor about your increased risk of heat-related illnesses. And take special care to stay hydrated and cool on hot days. It’s also a great idea to research natural remedies for the health issues that you’re being medicated for, if possible.

  1. Check on those at risk

On those really hot days, make sure to check on people who are at a greater risk of developing heat stroke symptoms. This includes people over the age of 65, people with chronic medical conditions, infants and children and people who don’t have air conditioning in their home. Research also shows that social isolation is associated with an increased risk of heat-related illness. This includes people who are unmarried or widowed, living alone or those who tend to stay home all day.

Make sure your loved ones have access to a cool place and that they’re drinking enough water. Never leave infants or children in a parked car. Also, make sure to dress them in loose, light clothes. Don’t forget your pets, too! They can develop heat-related illnesses from being left outside in the heat for too long and not having access to water.


If you’re with someone who is displaying heat stroke symptoms, call 911 immediately. Then move the person to a cool place. Try to cool them down by applying a cool compress to their forehead or even pouring cool water over their body. Then wait until medical professionals take over. Don’t hesitate to call for help, as heat stroke is a serious medical emergency. Immediate treatment is vital.

This article originally appeared on DrAxe.com and is republished here with permission.

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