On Your Health

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Heatstroke in Oklahoma

It’s July in Oklahoma, which can only mean one thing: it’s hot. Summers in the Sooner State can be downright brutal.

When we have clear blue skies and radiant sunshine, the state can still reach temperatures of more than 100 degrees. Add in humidity, lack of wind and other factors, and the heat index soars even higher. While this year we won’t top the record-breaking summer of 2011, when we hit 100 degrees a whopping 63 times, right now it’s still plenty hot and sticky outside.

People who work or play outside during the extremely hot Oklahoma summer run the risk of heat-related injuries. The most serious is heatstroke.

"Children and elderly are certainly vulnerable. Also, athletes who participate in sports that may require excess clothing, particularly football players, are at great risk. Others who may exert themselves in the heat such as firefighters, construction workers, military and others who wear extra clothing, equipment, or protective gear are more vulnerable as well," says Dr. Layne Keathly, a physician at INTEGRIS. "Heat-related illness is among the leading causes of death in young athletes each year."

Just this month, Mitch Petrus, a 32-year-old former NFL player for the New York Giants who won a Super Bowl with the team in 2012, died of heatstroke in Arkansas while working outside as a dangerous heat wave swept across much of the U.S.

Heatstroke is caused when the body overheats due to prolonged exposure or physical exertion in high temperatures. If your body temperature rises to 104 degrees or higher, heatstroke can occur very quickly and cause damage to you heart, muscles, brain and kidneys. If you don’t receive rapid treatment, heatstroke can lead to organ failure and death.

Every summer, approximately 600 people die from extreme heat. even though all heat-related deaths are preventable, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

When Does Heatstroke or Heat Exhaustion Happen?

"Both heatstroke and heat exhaustion refer to an elevation of core body temperature to a level that is unsafe for our bodies," says Dr. Keathly. "Heatstroke is a more severe form of heat exhaustion. Fortunately, heat exhaustion does not always lead to heatstroke."

Anyone can suffer from heatstroke or heat exhaustion, though it occurs most often in older adults and those with chronic illnesses. Wearing clothing that’s not breathable, drinking alcohol, not having enough water and your age can all increase your risk of sun illnesses. Strenuous sports, physical jobs or any other intense outside activity can cause what is called an exertional heatstroke. 

"Our bodies have various mechanisms to compensate for increases in body temperature. When our cooling capacity cannot keep up, our core body temperature will rise," says Dr. Keathly. "Significant elevation above our normal core temperature of 96.8 degrees can cause systemic dysfunction, which can potentially lead to multi-organ failure and death."

Those who are not accustomed to hot weather can be more susceptible to heatstroke. Traveling to a hotter climate with a lack of air-conditioning or cool air may cause your body to stop cooling down.

Certain medications affect your body’s ability to stay cool. "Keep in mind alcohol and some medications could increase risk of heat-related illness. This includes but is not limited to antihistamines (Benadryl, Zyrtec, Allegra to name a few), diuretics, decongestants, and anticholinergics," says Dr. Keathly. Those taking vasoconstrictors, beta-blockers, or antidepressants should also be careful in hot weather.

And if you have certain health conditions like heart disease, lung disease or a previous history of heatstroke, you also face a higher risk of sun-related illness.

Heatstroke Damage

Heatstroke damage can include brain swelling and increased heart rate, with your body going into “shock” (low blood pressure, confusion, possible coma and possible damage to internal organs). At its worst, heatstroke can cause your vital organs to shut down and death can occur.

Symptoms of Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion

Signs of heatstroke include a body temperature of 104 degrees or higher, a rapid and strong pulse, rapid breathing, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, losing consciousness, and hot, dry skin or heavy sweating. According to the CDC, if you think someone is having a heatstroke, call 911 right away because heatstroke is a medical emergency and their body needs to be cooled down immediately. Move the person to a cooler place, lower their body temperature with cool cloths, a cool bath or ice packs, and let the person drink cool water to re-hydrate, if they are able.

If a person has heat exhaustion, signs include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, fatigue, headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, a fast but weak pulse, and skin that is cold, pale and clammy. If someone has heat exhaustion, move them to a cool place, loosen their clothes, put cool cloths on the body and give them water. Get medical help right away if the person is throwing up, the symptoms get worse or last longer than one hour.

Not all cases of heat exhaustion turn into heatstroke, but it’s a concern. It’s also possible that heatstroke can occur immediately, without first showing symptoms of heat exhaustion.

How to Prevent a Heatstroke

With careful planning, anyone can avoid becoming a victim of heatstroke. Follow these tips from Centers for Disease Control to stay cool this summer.

Wear appropriate clothing

When outside in summer, choose lightweight and light-colored clothing that allows the skin to breathe and sweat to evaporate.

Keep your indoors areas cool

In 2016, 36 people died inside their own homes from heatstroke due to lack of air conditioning or fans. If you don’t have air conditioning, go to a heat-relief shelter, local library, a mall or any public place that offers air conditioning. While electric fans help, they alone cannot fight off extreme heat illness. If you are unable to move to an air-conditioned space, then take cool showers often and keep cold, wet towels on your head, neck and body.

Limit your outdoor activities

If possible, do outdoor activities in the morning or evening when temperatures are cooler. If you have to be outside for work or other obligations, be sure to stay hydrated and rest in shady areas as often as possible.

Screen against sunburn

Sunburns can also affect the body’s ability to cool itself, so use sunscreen and wear a wide-brimmed hat to reduce sun exposure.

Never leave children or pets in cars

Cars left in the sun can quickly heat up to lethal temperatures, even with windows cracked. A hot car can reach dangerous temperatures within minutes; the temperature can rise up to seven degrees every five minutes, which will quickly cause causing heatstroke and possible death.

Avoid heavy meals and stay away from sugary or alcoholic drinks

These drinks cause you to lose body fluid. Drink more water or non-alcoholic and non-sugary drinks during the summer, even if you don’t feel thirsty.

Use a buddy system

When working in the heat, monitor the condition of your coworkers and have someone do the same for you. Heat-induced illnesses can cause a person to become confused or lose consciousness. If you are 65 or older, have a friend or relative call to check on you twice a day during a heat wave. If you know someone in this age group, check on them at least twice a day.

It’s also good to check on others with a higher risk of heatstroke, including infants and toddlers, those who are obese, those who live in a home with no air conditioning and those with medical conditions like heart disease, high blood pressure or who take certain medications.

"Prevention is key and much of it is common sense, and using good judgment," Dr. Keathly says. "Know when to be prepared, because heat-related illness risk factors are somewhat predictable. Some of these include environmental conditions (high heat/humidity), high intensity exercise, poor physical fitness, equipment preventing heat loss, obesity and dehydration."

If you find yourself in a situation with the potential for heat-related illness, appropriate measures should be taken immediately. We encourage all Oklahomans to stay healthy and cool this summer.

For more health resources, please visit the INTEGRIS On Your Health blog.