Heat Stroke – How to recognise the symptoms, to prevent and treat it

Table of Contents

In our hot South African environment and weather, heat stroke can be a common and also dangerous condition and life threatening emergency, so we all need to be aware of the signs and symptoms, preventive precautions, and how to treat this true emergency.   

heat stroke

What is a heat stroke and what causes it?

Heat stroke is when the casualties’ body temperature rises and the body becomes dangerously overheated, usually caused by prolonged exposure to heat or high temperatures, or a high fever. The use of drugs such as ecstasy may also cause heat stroke. Heat stroke usually follows on from heat exhaustion and occurs when the body is unable to cool itself any longer by the evaporation of sweating and temperatures continue to persist and or rise. Once the sweating stops, the body cannot cool itself any longer and heat stroke takes place. The body overheats and systems start to fail. High climate temperatures or heat production, with decreased water or replacement fluid intake and excessive exercise, aggravated by hot and humid climates are the direct causes of heat stroke.        

Heat stroke vs heat exhaustion

Heat stroke is more dangerous than heat exhaustion, but heat stroke follows after a heat exhaustion condition. Heat exhaustion is caused by a loss of salt and water from the body as a result of excessive sweating. The condition usually develops gradually and often affects people who are no acclimatised to hot temperatures and humid environments or conditions, which then results in heat exhaustion. Exercise and a low intake of water also contribute to heat exhaustion which if not recognised in the warning signs and treated correctly with first aid will develop into heat stroke, which can be life threatening if left untreated.    

If you can recognise the signs and symptoms of these two conditions then you would be able to treat them accordingly and prevent the casualty’s condition from worsening and possibly save someone’s life. 

Signs and Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

  • Sweating, but pale and clammy skin condition;
  • Cramps in arms, legs and even the abdomen;
  • Headache, dizziness and confusion;
  • Loss of appetite and nausea;
  • Rapid but weak pulse and breathing;
  • May progress to heat stroke if left untreated. 
signs of heat stroke

Signs and symptoms of Heat Stroke 

  • Hot flushed and dry skin (different to heat exhaustion);
  • Body temperature as high as 40 degree celsius or 104 fahrenheit;
  • Headache and discomfort;
  • Restlessness and confusion;
  • Decreased level of consciousness;
  • Bounding pulse rate;
  • Fits or convulsions;
  • Death if left untreated. 

The relation between dehydration and heat stroke

Dehydration is caused when the amount of fluid loss by the body is not adequately replaced by water and fluids and other minerals the body requires such as salt and potassium. The body requires about 2 liters of water per day to operate normal bodily functions. Dehydration normally occurs due to excessive sweating during exercise or manual labour or work, especially in hot climates or weather. Other causes of dehydration also include vomiting, diarrhoea, and a raised body temperature known as hyperthermia causing excessive sweating. If left untreated dehydration develops into heat exhaustion and if that is left untreated that develops into heat stroke – they are all linked to one another like a chain of events.    

The priority of the first aider in a dehydration condition is to replace the lost fluid by administering lots of water and replacement salts through rehydration solutions and administering other treatment such as shade, removing excessive clothing, calming and reassuring the casualty, seeking medical advice, and calling the ambulance and paramedics if the condition worsens.  

heat stroke prevention

Prevention of Heat Stroke

To prevent heat stroke from occurring stay away from the risk factors such as:

  • Excessively hot and humid working or sports activity environments;
  • Make sure that people rest in shade during peak temperature times;
  • Sufficient water and replacement rehydration fluids must be taken regularly;
  • Monitor for signs and heat stroke symptoms such as headaches, cramps, restlessness, confusion: 
  • Have a qualified first aider available with the correct equipment such as thermometer, sheets, water and first aid kit;

Prevention is better than cure, so careful monitoring of the work activities and people’s responses and conditions is crucial. 

What first aid can help in the treatment of heat stroke?

The absolute priority is to lower the casualties’ body temperature as quickly as possible, and if not done complications can result such as the casualty having a fit, seizure, or convulsion (which are all the same thing). This can be achieved by moving them to a cool place, wrapping them in a damp cool sheet which is regularly kept damp with cold or cool water. The temperature of the casualty must drop to below 38 degrees celsius. Once the casualty temperature is normalised at 37.5 or below 38, then the damp sheet can be replaced with a dry sheet. Heat stroke recovery is possible with quick and decisive first aid treatment such as rapid body cooling, fluid, and rehydration solution replacement, temperature monitoring, and general first aid treatment.   

first aid and heat stroke

Importance of first aid training

Receiving accredited first aid training such as attending the First Aid NQF Level 1 course at Absolute Health Services, will empower the first aider with the required knowledge and skills to recognise and effectively treat heat exhaustion and heat stroke emergency condition. First aid training can be presented onsite at our client’s premises, or at one of our training centres located in Johannesburg, Durban, Port Elizabeth, or Cape Town on scheduled course dates, so visit our website to make a course booking and train your team in a fully accredited first aid course.  

First Aid Kit Checklist

Ensure that you always have a correctly stocked First Aid Box in your workplace as per the Regulation 7.

Download our free checklist to keep on hand so that your are to respond to emergencies effectively.