Summer safety tips for avoiding heat stroke

By Heidi Doreau, NP

With summer underway, New Englanders are enjoying — or tolerating — hot temperatures and all they entail. One of the unfortunate risks to our health from high temperatures is hyperthermia, also known as heat stroke, when body temperatures reach at least 104°F.

The two types of heat stroke are non-exertional and exertional. Non-exertional heat stroke usually occurs in elders with an underlying medical condition, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity or physical disability. Certain types of medications or recreational drugs also pose a risk.

Exertional heat stroke may occur in young, otherwise healthy individuals who engage in heavy exercise during hot weather. Examples include athletes, construction workers and firefighters. This type of heat stroke is more common in males, as well as those who have poor physical fitness, raised in temperate climates (such as New England) or who are acutely ill.

Symptoms of heat stroke

In early stages, those who experience heat stroke may complain of muscle cramps, weakness, lethargy, nausea, or dizziness. Others may notice flushing, rapid breathing, confusion, agitation or trouble walking. If untreated, heat stroke can lead to passing out, seizures and coma.

How to avoid heat stroke

Due to their decreased ability to adapt to sudden changes in temperature, elders need to be particularly concerned about non-exertional heat stroke in the summer. Tips to prevent heat stroke include:

  • Stay in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible and do not rely on a fan as your main cooling source during extreme high temperatures.
  • Drink more water and do not wait until you are thirsty to drink.
  • Avoid using a stove or oven on very hot days.
  • Wear lightweight clothing.
  • Take cool showers or baths to cool down.
  • Check on friends and neighbors and ask someone to check on you.

In order to prevent exertional heat stroke, gradually acclimate yourself to exercise in hot weather over a period of 10-14 days, remembering proper hydration. Exercise should be of moderate intensity, avoiding highest exertion during the hottest parts of the day.

If you or someone else are experiencing symptoms of heat stroke, cool down by removing excess layers, spraying skin with lukewarm water, and applying ice packs to underarms, groin and back of neck, cheeks, palms and soles of feet. Though dehydration does not always occur with heat stroke, it is advisable to increase water intake. Though the temperature is elevated in heat stroke, medications such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) do not help to bring down body temperature in these cases.

Heidi Doreau is a nurse practioner with Emerson Primary Care Associates of Bedford. For more information, or to make an appointment with a clinician at Emerson Primary Care Associates of Bedford, please call 339-215-5100 or visit