By Vanessa Orr

With so many areas facing heat warnings across the country, it’s important to know the signs of heatstroke and ways to avoid succumbing to this deadly condition. This is especially important for kids who are heading back to sports practice now that school is back in session.

“In general terms, heatstroke is a severe case of the body overheating,” explained

Vincent Sparber, M.D

., KIDZ Medical Services’ director of pediatric emergency services and chairman, Department of Pediatrics, Bethesda Hospital East. “It is defined as a body temperature higher than 40°C (104°F) associated with neurologic dysfunction.”

Symptoms of heatstroke include a fast heart rate, palpitations, headache, confusion, vomiting, excessive body temperature, difficulty breathing, weakness, and hot, dry skin. Tell-tale signs of heatstroke include an altered mental status, excessive vomiting, severe weakness and the cessation of sweating. While a lack of sweating may denote heatstroke, this is not always the case; an individual with heatstroke may sweat until it is so severe that those mechanisms stop.

“Symptoms of heatstroke can come quickly, and most people don’t realize that they have it until they start feeling more severe symptoms,” added Dr. Sparber, noting that heatstroke is usually due to exposure to high temperatures while performing physical activity. “Youth who are progressing toward heatstroke may not feel well and sense that something is wrong, but may not realize how sick they actually are.”

Every year, student athletes with undiagnosed heart issues pass away unexpectedly during or after school practices as the heat exacerbates these unknown medical issues.

Heat exhaustion normally proceeds heatstroke, and though the symptoms are less severe, they should serve as red flags to a potentially worsening scenario. Heat exhaustion symptoms include rapid heart rate, excessive sweating, muscle cramps, headaches, dizziness, pale and clammy skin, and excessive thirst.

A person suffering from heatstroke is facing a true medical emergency as the condition can lead to renal failure, liver failure, cardiac arrythmia, cardiac failure, respiratory failure, seizures, strokes, paralysis, rhabdomyolysis, and electrolyte abnormalities.

“Heatstroke can be deadly; when the body’s temperature is so high and its ability to self-regulate its temperature is overwhelmed, the body starts shutting down and the vital organs start failing,” said Dr. Sparber. “The aim is to cool the body as fast as possible to stop that process from happening.”

The best way to deal with a person with suspected heatstroke is:

  • Call 911
  • Get them out of the heat into a cool and shaded area
  • Remove any excessive clothing
  • Cover with cool wet towels, preferably soaked in ice water; apply ice packs to the groin and the back of the neck and armpits; spray the person with cool water
  • DO NOT GIVE THEM ANYTHING TO DRINK, as the person could aspirate the liquid if they are in an altered mental state.

Heat exhaustion can be life-threatening if it is not noticed and progresses to heatstroke. Encouraging fluid intake is beneficial (as long as there is no risk of aspiration) as are ice packs, cool, wet towels and the removal of wet clothing.

One other concern at this time of year is sun poisoning, which usually shows up as a rash hours to days after sun exposure and persists for several days before subsiding.

“Individuals can also get severe sunburns from UV light exposure, and experience severe pain and skin redness, blistering and peeling of the skin, and nausea, along with vomiting, chills, dehydration, headaches and confusion,” said Dr. Sparber. “It can be a serious condition due to severe dehydration and possible infection from damaged skin.”

Heat related Illness can be avoided by preparation:

  • Know the weather: pay attention to heat and humidity levels.
  • Control your activity level. Pace yourself and take breaks.
  • Hydrate … hydrate … hydrate. Drink water or Gatorade. Avoid caffeine, soda and liquor.
  • Know your limits based on your fitness level, age, obesity, and underlying medical conditions.
  • Wear loose-fitting clothing, hats and sunscreen.
  • Try to do activities early in the morning and late in the afternoon to avoid the hottest times of the day.

Dr. Vincent Sparber is KIDZ Medical Services’ director of pediatric emergency services and chairman, Department of Pediatrics, Bethesda Hospital East.