Heat Stroke: The Dangers of the Summer Sun

While dehydration is a well-known condition, athletes need to be aware of another disorder caused by the summer sun – heat stroke – a serious medical emergency that can have lasting affects.

Many athletes take advantage of summer’s warm temperatures to take their sports and other activities outdoors. Whether practicing, training, or playing a game, it is important for athletes to be aware of the medical conditions that can arise from exerting oneself in the heat. Dehydration, a lack of fluids, is a well-known condition and most athletes understand the importance of hydrating. However, while re-hydrating can simply treat most cases of dehydration, there are other more serious heat-related conditions that pose a true medical emergency.

“Many people are so eager to enjoy summer weather that they underestimate the risks,” Rahul Khare, MD an emergency room physician at Northwester Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said in a press release. “It’s important to take precautions that will keep you safe in the sun and healthy during the summer season.”

According to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) more people in the United States die each year from extreme heat exposure than from hurricanes, lightening, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined. Heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to regulate its temperature. An athlete experiencing a heat stroke will have a rapid rise in body temperature that the body will not be able to compensate for by cooling down. Sweating is the mechanism by which the body cools itself, but in a heat stroke, this mechanism fails. Body temperature can rise to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher within 10-15 minutes during a heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a dangerous condition, because it can cause death or permanent disability if the afflicted person does not receive treatment from a trained emergency technician. There are many warning signs of a heat stroke, but the symptoms can at times be mistaken for simple dehydration or even a heart attack. Athletes should look out for each other and watch for the warning signs when in extreme heat. Extremely high body temperature, red or hot skin, dry skin (no sweating), a rapid pulse, throbbing headache, nausea, dizziness and even loss of consciousness are all signs to look out for. People most at risk for a heat stroke are children, the elderly, and those with circulation or breathing problems.

“The biggest problem with heat stroke is that most people who start to develop heat stroke often have it have no idea they’re in any danger because of mental status changes,” said Khare. “If you think someone is experiencing heat stroke, call 911, get them out of the heat and provide them with fluids.”

If you believe you or a teammate is suffering a heat stroke, the best thing to do is call for emergency services to avoid permanent organ damage caused by the rapid increase in body temperature. To administer first aid to a heat stroke victim, the first thing to do is to try to cool their body down, which means move to a shady or air conditioned area, remove clothing, apply cool or room temperature water to the skin, apply a fan, or place ice packs in areas like the armpits or groin.

A heat stroke is a completely preventable condition. The most important thing to remember when in the sun or extreme heat is to remain hydrated, which means drinking even before you feel thirsty. Reach for water and sports drinks (which replenish electrolytes like sodium) but avoid caffeinated and alcoholic beverages that can actually increase dehydration. Athletes should try to limit outdoor exposure to the morning or late evening instead of the middle of the day. It is also important to remember to wear hats and light-colored, loose-fitting clothes.
-Erin Podolak


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