Can Hydrating Prevent Heatstroke?

·4 min read
Woman drinking water on a designed background
Woman drinking water on a designed background

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According to the National Weather Service Weather Prediction Center, more than 100 million Americans have been advised to stay indoors during a historic heat wave that broke several records in recent weeks in the West and Southwest.

With this record-setting heat wave now hitting many across the East Coast, it's more important than ever to notice the signs and symptoms and take preventive actions so you and your family can avoid heatstroke, heat exhaustion and severe dehydration.

Related: 5 Ways to Tell If You're Dehydrated—and What to do About It

What Is Heatstroke?

As defined by the Mayo Clinic, heatstroke occurs when your body cannot properly cool itself due to prolonged exposure to extreme heat. When your body does not produce enough sweat to cool you down, it causes your internal temperature to rise, which comes with many risks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the common symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • High body temperature (103°F or higher)

  • Altered mental state (confusion, agitation, slurred speech and seizures)

  • Hot, dry skin that can be flushed, but not sweaty

  • Nausea and vomiting

  • Rapid heart rate and rapid breathing

  • Loss of consciousness

Heatstroke requires immediate medical attention and often intravenous fluids to compensate for the loss of fluid and electrolytes.

After calling 911, here are some immediate steps to take if you or someone else is experiencing heatstroke:

  • Lie down in a cool, shaded area with feet slightly elevated

  • Remove or loosen clothing and apply cool, wet cloths to the body

  • Apply ice packs to the groin and armpit areas

  • Gradually drink cool fluids if alert, keeping in mind that excessively cold beverages can cause stomach cramping

What Is the Difference Between Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion?

Heatstroke and heat exhaustion may seem like similar ailments, but the treatments for these conditions do differ. Heatstroke is the most severe of all heat-related ailments, but knowing the symptoms of heat exhaustion can help you keep it from developing into heatstroke.

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke both cause nausea and vomiting, but heat exhaustion often shows its first signs in the form of decreased urination, headaches, dizziness and fainting.

If you feel you may be experiencing heat exhaustion, move to a cooler place, take frequent, small sips of water, loosen your clothing to allow air flow and apply cool, wet cloths or ice packs to your body or take a cool bath. If you don't feel better an hour after treating your symptoms of heat exhaustion, you may be developing heatstroke and will need immediate medical attention.

Can Hydration Prevent Heatstroke?

Hydrating, by drinking plenty of water or electrolyte-packed sports drinks, is the easiest and most important way to help prevent heatstroke. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, drinking at least 1 cup of water every 20 minutes can help to keep you properly hydrated while you're outside working, recreating or sunbathing in higher temps.

Water is also helpful externally, as well as internally. Spraying or sponging cool water on your body can help to keep your internal body temperature in a safe zone.

What is important to note is the difference between prevention and cure. Hydration can absolutely help prevent heatstroke, but heatstroke is an illness that requires immediate medical attention that water alone often cannot cure. It's important to take quick action to prevent heatstroke from developing into an increasingly life-threatening medical emergency.

The Bottom Line

As temperatures rise nationwide, it's important for all of us, from Seattle to Orlando alike, to note the signs and symptoms of heatstroke, heat exhaustion and severe dehydration. Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests hydration is the first line of defense, with water, cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar, and noncaffeinated and nonalcoholic beverages key to preventing these ailments.

Rescheduling outside activities or exercise to cooler times of the day (or moving indoors) will also help avoid too much exposure to excess heat. And as the temperatures inch toward (and above) 90 degrees across the country this summer, wearing light-colored, loose-fitting clothes and gradually acclimating to the humidity and heat will help you make your summer all the more comfortable, fun and safe.