What To Do if Someone Experiences Heatstroke

June 01, 2023

As parts of the world, including Malaysia and other parts of Southeast Asia, continue to experience extremely hot weather, it’s important to safeguard yourself against the dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition known as heatstroke.

There are two types of heatstroke: classic and exertional. Classic heatstroke typically affects those who aren’t physically active, and is usually caused by exposure to hot and humid conditions.

In contrast, exertional heatstroke typically affects athletes or individuals who perform physical activities in hot environments. It occurs when the body generates heat faster than it can dissipate, leading to an increase in core body temperature.

The older adult population and adults with comorbidities make up the highest proportion of fatalities. This is because as people age, their bodies become less able to regulate temperature and adapt to heat stress.

Additionally, older adults may have chronic medical conditions or take medications that can interfere with their body’s ability to regulate temperature, making them more susceptible to heatstroke.

Infants and younger children are also at risk, especially of classic heatstroke. This is because their bodies have a higher ratio of surface area to mass, which means they absorb heat more quickly.

Their thermoregulatory system is also not fully developed, which makes it harder for them to release heat effectively.

Additionally, they have a smaller blood volume in comparison with their body size, which limits their ability to conduct heat and leads to a buildup of heat in their bodies.

Lastly, they have a lower perspiration rate, which makes it harder for them to cool down through sweat evaporation.
Emergency measures
When dealing with someone who has heatstroke symptoms, swift action is necessary to prevent further harm.

Here are some steps that can be taken:
  • Transfer the person to a cooler area – if possible, a place with shade or air conditioning.
  • Help the person remove any excess clothing that could trap heat.
  • Decrease their body temperature by using a fan; applying a cool cloth or ice pack to their neck, forehead, armpits, and groin; or spraying them with cool water.
  • Hydrate the person by giving them water or other fluids to drink, but avoid beverages that contain alcohol or caffeine as these can dehydrate the body.
If the individual’s symptoms do not improve or they become unconscious, seek emergency medical assistance immediately.
Recovery from heatstroke depends on the severity of the condition and the timeliness of treatment. Mild cases can often be treated effectively with rest and rehydration, and individuals usually recover fully without any long-term effects.

However, more severe cases can lead to permanent organ damage, in which case the recovery process may take longer. In some instances, rehabilitation may be necessary to help individuals regain lost physical or cognitive abilities.

Additionally, those who have experienced heatstroke are at an increased risk of developing it again in the future. As such, it is important to follow your doctor’s instructions for recovery and prevention.

With proper treatment and care, most individuals can fully resume normal activity. However, it is essential to avoid heatstroke recurrence by keeping hydrated, avoiding prolonged exposure to hot environments, and taking breaks from physical activities during hot weather.

Dr. Syed Farid Almufazal Bin Syed Salim
Consultant Emergency Physician & Head of Emergency Department
Columbia Asia Hospital - Seremban

MBBS (UK), MMed (Emergency Medicine) (UKM)
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  This article first appeared in Free Malaysia Today, 10 May 2023.
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