Can heat stroke cause life-threatening symptoms? An expert weighs in

·5 min read
Stay out of the heat if possible during heat waves. (Photo via Getty Images) heat stroke is common
Heat stroke can negatively impact the body, so experts recommend you take measures to prevent heat-related illnesses. (Photo via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Canadians have experienced a record-breaking sweltering summer.

While warm days can be spent by the lake, at the cottage or on a patio with friends, it can also lead to serious consequences that many of us may not be aware of. Specifically, heat-related illnesses such as heat stroke can be deadly or cause permanent health complications.

This summer alone, the warm weather has killed hundreds of people in Spain and the U.K., where heat waves caused temperatures to climb above 40 C. Last year in British Columbia, more than 500 people died during a "heat dome" in the province.

With the ever-changing climate, experts say we’ll be seeing more of these extremely hot days in the future.

Dr. Louis Francescutti, a physician and professor at the University of Alberta’s School of Public Health, wants everyone to take heat warnings seriously and says we should all be aware of the risks the warm weather brings.

"There was one study in Nature Climate Change that said that by the year 2100, 75 per cent of the global population could be subjected to at least 20 days of deadly heat waves per year," he explained. "You start wondering how many people are going to die in the future as a result of this, and it’s quite alarming."

Side view portrait of a stressed woman suffering heat stroke in summer vacation
Heat stroke is one of the most serious heat-related illnesses. (Photo via Getty Images)

What is heat stroke?

According to Health Canada, heat stroke is one of the most serious heat-related illness. This condition can take two forms: classic heat stroke, which typically affects sedentary and vulnerable populations such as babies, pregnant women and the elderly, and exertional heat stroke, which is normally associated with high physical activity.

Heat stroke occurs when the body’s temperature rises to a point where the "sweating mechanism" fails and someone's internal body temperature rises to over 41 degrees celsius. As such, the body can no longer control its temperature and is unable to cool down. In the most severe cases, overexposure to the season’s scorching temperatures can even be fatal.

What are the symptoms of heat stroke?

While symptoms vary person to person, they can include slurred speech, hot or dry skin, profuse sweating, nausea and vomiting, fainting, weakness, dizziness, severe headaches, aggressive behaviour, comas and seizures — according to the Canadian Red Cross.

If you or a loved one is experiencing any of these symptoms, it's important to seek medical attention immediately.

If you see someone suffering from heat stroke get them to drink water, and remove any tight clothing. (Photo via Getty Images)
If you see someone suffering from heat stroke, try to cool them down until help arrives. (Photo via Getty Images)

How heat stroke can damage our bodies

Heat stroke can cause serious problems such as brain swelling, kidney failure, liver failure, nerve damage and acute respiratory distress syndrome, which is a life-threatening lung injury.

"For some people, they would be better off dying from heatstroke than living with the consequences afterwards because if it gets to the point where the body has reached heat stroke and it's not treated within 30 minutes, just about every organ in the body can shut down and cause permanent damage," Francescutti tells Yahoo Canada.

According to the physician, when you can’t cool down because of a heat stroke, there are more than 20 ways the "body ends up dying."

"One of the first ways is your kidneys shut down and that means they are not able to get rid of the toxins that it normally produces," he explains. "What ends up happening is that the lining of all the vessels and the gut become more open and permeable, which means that toxins are now getting into your gut, which will get into your bloodstream."

According to Francescutti, if you reach that point the damage is irreversible, and you may need to be put on dialysis for the rest of your life.

Moreover, for someone who has pre-existing health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure or heart disease, or if the patient is under the age of four or over the age of 65, heatstroke can be fatal.

"It wasn't the heat that killed them directly, but it was the consequences of the heat triggering a response in the body and the body just couldn't reply to it," Francescutti says, adding that patients must seek medical treatment as soon as possible to help prevent life-long symptoms.

Don't forget to check on loved ones who live alone during heat waves. (Photo via Getty Images)
During heat waves, experts advise staying in air-conditioned areas if possible. (Photo via Getty Images)

How can you help someone suffering from heat-related symptoms?

If you see someone suffering from a heat stroke, try to cool them down before help arrives.

To do this, the Canadian Red Cross recommends placing ice packs on the neck, groin, and armpits of affected individuals. If possible, get them a cool drink with electrolytes such as Gatorade, immerse the body in cool water, remove any tight clothing and fan the skin.

Once at the hospital, doctors will treat heat stroke patients with medication to prevent seizures, give them an oxygen mask, supply them with a cooling blanket and insert an IV into their arm with cooling fluid.

How can I prevent heat stroke?

One of the best ways to prevent heat stroke is to avoid physical activity in the heat, hydrate, stay in air-conditioned areas, and wear lightweight and loose-fitting clothes.

Additionally, never leave a child or pet in a car or other warm, enclosed spaces during a heat wave.

If you know a hot day is on the way, you may want to check in with loved ones who live alone or those who do not have access to air conditioning.

As temperatures rise and the number of hot days increases every year, Francescutti urges everyone to educate themselves on the affects of heat stroke and what they can do to avoid heat-related illnesses.

"If public health officials tell you that there's a heat warning, take it seriously because this can cost you your life," he warns.

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