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What is Heat Stroke? The Causes, Symptoms and Complications

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information on heat stroke's causes, symptoms and complications Hemera/Thinkstock

As the heat rises, many people are at risk for heat-related illnesses. One type of heat-related illness is heat stroke, which occurs when individuals do physical activities in hot weather or have extended exposure to elevated temperatures.

Other factors besides extreme heat and excessive exercise in high temperature can cause heat stroke. For example, wearing too much clothing in high temperatures may lead to heat-related illnesses.

Certain medications may contribute to heat stroke. MedlinePlus listed anticholinergics, beta blockers, phenothiazines, neuroleptics and diuretics as examples.

Other possible causes of heat stroke include sweat gland problems, heart disease, alcohol use and dehydration.

The risk for developing heat-related illness is also higher in obese persons, the elderly and children.

Heat stroke occurs after two other heat-related illnesses.

The first is heat cramps, which happens when an individual’s body overheats. When someone has heat cramps, she may have muscle cramps and fatigue. Profuse sweating and thirst may also occur.

If the individual’s body temperature does not cool down, she can then develop heat exhaustion. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include dizziness, nausea, vomiting and headache.

Another symptom of heat exhaustion is dark urine, which is an indicator of dehydration. Weakness, heavy sweating and cool moist skin may occur.

After heat exhaustion, if the individual’s body temperature rises to 104 degrees F, it is considered heat stroke.

The high body temperature is the major symptom of heat stroke, according to the MayoClinic.com, though individuals can have other symptoms as well. This includes nausea and vomiting, rapid and shallow breathing, and a racing heart rate.

Some individuals may experience confusion, in which they may also have difficulty understanding or producing speech, hallucinate and have seizures.

In the early stage of heat stroke, individuals may have muscle cramps, but if heat stroke progresses without intervention, they may experience limp or rigid muscles instead.

If the heat stroke was caused by physical activities, individuals may have moist skin. But if the cause of the heat stroke was hot weather, individuals will have a lack of sweating.

Other symptoms of heat stroke include a throbbing headache, flushed skin, dizziness, irrational behavior and unconsciousness.

If untreated, heat stroke can result in serious health complications. When heat stroke occurs, the individual’s vital organs, such as the brain, can swell. If the body temperature remains elevated, the swelling can result in permanent damage.

Another complication of heat stroke is shock, in which the individual suffers from a sudden loss of blood flow. When shock occurs, the individual can have blue nails and lips, clammy skin and very low blood pressure.


MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Heat Emergencies. Web. 11 July 2012

American Academy of Family Physicians. Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke. Web. 11 July 2012

MayoClinic.com. Heatstroke. Web. 11 July 2012

Reviewed July 11, 2012
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.



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