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Is Heat Stroke Different to Heat Exhaustion?

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As much as we love the warm weather in Australia, it can cause its fair share of problems. We’ve covered how to treat and avoid sunburn, but how much do you know about heat stroke and heat exhaustion? Let’s examine the signs and effects so you can recognise them if you ever need to.

How is heat stroke different to heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is a mild form of heat stress, while heat stroke signifies a more advanced and extreme elevation in core body temperature. A person may have developed heat exhaustion if they’re severely dehydrated, are developing muscle cramps or are feeling dizzy or exhausted. Their pulse may be weak and/or rapid, and their skin may first become pale and clammy then red and flushed[i]. One important difference to note is that with heat exhaustion the body can sweat to attempt to cool itself down, while with heat stroke sweating will be no longer possible. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are also different to sun poisoning, or severe sunburn.


What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke or hyperthermia is a serious medical condition caused by excessive external heat. Technically, it means that your body’s core temperature is exceeding 40.5°C rather than maintaining its healthy core temperature of around 37°C[ii]. This extremely high body temperature can potentially lead to organ damage – or even death in some cases.

What are the symptoms of heat stroke?
There are several indicators for someone suffering from heat stroke, including that they may no longer be sweating as with heat exhaustion. Their breath and pulse may both be rapid, their skin may be red, dry and hot, and they may be displaying unusual or even aggressive behaviouri. At this stage, it’s critical to contact emergency services.


How do you treat heat stroke?

Heat stroke will require immediate first aid attention with the aim of cooling the body back down quickly. If you’re with someone who is displaying symptoms, call 000 immediately. If you have access to towels or sheets of some kind, you can wet these, place them and fan them to cool the person’s body down. If you have access to ice packs these can be placed in the armpits and/or groin, though these should be removed if the person starts to shiver. Keep checking their vital signs at regular intervals, and be prepared to perform CPR if requiredi.

How long does heat stroke last?

Recovery time will vary from person to person. The initial aim is to bring the core body temperature back below 38°C[iii], after which there may be several days of general recovery. Full recovery can take anywhere from weeks to months, depending on the individual case.


How to prevent heat stroke

Of course, preventing heat stroke in the first place is preferable to trying to cure it. A few simple steps can protect you from the dangers of heat stroke. Keep up your water uptake, stay in the shade wherever possible and minimise any strenuous activity on warm daysiii. Some people such as the very young, elderly and those on some medications are particularly vulnerable and will need to be protected appropriately. With a little care and adequate sun protection, it is easy to enjoy that warm weather safely.


[i] http://www.redcross.org.au/heatstroke-symptoms.aspx

[ii] https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/heatstroke

[iii] https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/heat-stress-preventing-heatstroke

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