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What Are Heat Stroke and Heat Illness?

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Updated May 27, 2012

Question: What Are Heat Stroke and Heat Illness?
Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat illness, a group of heat-related problems that can affect premature babies and people of all ages.
Answer: Heat stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency. Heat stroke occurs when the body is so overwhelmed by heat that it can no longer cool itself. The body's temperature rises rapidly, and death or permanent injury are likely if emergency medical treatment is not immediate.

Heat illness is a range of conditions caused by heat. Heat stroke is the most serious of the heat illnesses. Heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stress are also types of heat illness.

What Are the Symptoms of Heat Stroke and Heat Illness?

Heat illness is a process that begins with mild symptoms and gradually becomes more severe.

Early symptoms of heat illness include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Pale, cool, moist skin
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Tiredness, weakness
  • Rapid breathing
  • Rapid pulse

If you notice any of the above symptoms, particularly in a baby or young child, begin treating for heat illness immediately. If symptoms last longer than an hour or get worse, then seek emergency medical care.

Late symptoms of heat illness progressing to heat stroke require immediate medical attention. They include:

  • Body temperature above 103 degrees
  • Hot, dry skin
  • Severe headache
  • Strong, fast pulse
  • Loss of consciousness

How Are Heat Stroke and Heat Illness Treated in Babies?

Heat stroke is an emergency medical condition that requires immediate medical care. If you notice any of the late signs of heat illness in an infant, call 911 or go straight to the closest emergency room.

If a baby shows any of the early signs of heat illness, move immediately to a cooler location. Take the baby's temperature often, and use cool washcloths to cool the baby. Offer breast milk or formula to prevent dehydration in babies who have not yet started solid foods; water or an infant electrolyte solution can be given to older babies. Keep a careful eye on the baby and allow him or her to rest.

If symptoms last longer than 1 hour or seem to be getting worse, call 911 or go to the closest emergency room.

Preventing Heat Stroke and Heat Illness

When planning summer activities, remember that babies are more susceptible to heat illness than adults and children. They sweat more than adults and have a harder time regulating their body temperature. Preemies, with their immature skin and temperature regulation, are even more susceptible than other infants

Keep babies cool during the summer by spending the hottest days of summer in air-conditioned environments. Spending even 2 hours per day in the air conditioning can help prevent heat stroke and heat illness. Don't wrap babies too tightly or dress them too warmly at bedtime. Most importantly, never leave a child in a parked car. Even with outside temperatures in the low 70s and the windows cracked, temperatures in a parked car reach 100 degrees within 20 minutes.

Sources:

McLaren, Catherine MD, Null, Jan CCM, and Quinn, James MD. "Heat Stress from Enclosed Vehicles: Moderate Ambient Temperatures Cause Significant Temperature Rise in Enclosed Vehicles." Pediatrics July 2005; 116, e105-e112.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Extreme Heat. Accessed July 2, 2009 from http://www.bt.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/faq.asp

Scheers-Masters, Joshua BA, Schootman, Mario PhD, and Thach, Bradley T. MD. "Heat Stress and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome Incidence: A United States Population Epidemiologic Study." Pediatrics June 2004; 113, e586-e592.

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