Hyperthermia, in its advanced state referred to as heat stroke or sunstroke, is an acute condition, which occurs when the body produces or absorbs more heat than it can dissipate. It is usually due to excessive exposure to heat. The heat-regulating mechanisms of the body eventually become overwhelmed and unable to effectively deal with the heat, and body temperature climbs uncontrollably. This is a serious medical emergency that requires immediate hospitalization.
Hyperthermia is also used to treat cancer and can be created artificially by drugs or medical devices.
Signs and symptoms
Heat prostration is heralded by mental confusion, muscle cramps, and often nausea or vomiting. At this stage the victim will likely be sweating profusely. With continued exposure to ambient heat, which sometimes is facilitated by the mental confusion, temperature may rise into the 103-104 degrees F range, and lead to full-blown heat stroke.
One of the body's most important methods of temperature regulation is perspiration. Evaporation of water is endothermic; therefore, perspiration is an efficient way to rid the body of excess heat. When the body becomes sufficiently dehydrated to prevent the production of sweat, this avenue of heat reduction is closed. Thus, the first symptom of a serious heat stroke may be the loss of sweating. When the body is no longer capable of sweating, core temperature begins to rise swiftly.
Victims become more confused, may become hostile, often have headache, and may seem drunk. Due to dehydration, blood pressure may drop significantly, leading to possible fainting or dizziness, especially if the victim stands suddenly. As blood pressure drops, heart rate and respiration rate will increase (tachycardia and tachypnea) as the heart attempts to supply enough oxygen to the body. The skin will become red as blood vessels dilate in an attempt to increase heat dissipation. As heat stroke progresses, the decrease in blood pressure will cause blood vessels to contract, resulting in a pale or bluish skin colour. Complaints of feeling hot may be followed by chills and trembling, as is the case in fever. Some victims, especially young children, may suffer convulsions. Acute dehydration such as that accompanying heat stroke can produce nausea and vomiting; temporary blindness may also be observed. Eventually, as body organs begin to fail, unconsciousness and coma will result.
Under very rare circumstances, a person may exhibit symptoms similar to heat stroke without suffering a heat stroke.
Heat stroke is a medical emergency requiring hospitalization, and the local emergency system should be activated as soon as possible.
The body temperature must be lowered immediately. The victim should be moved to a cool area (indoors, or at least in the shade) and clothing removed to promote heat loss (passive cooling). Active cooling methods may be used: The person is bathed in cool water, or wrapped in a cool wet towel. Cold compresses to the head, neck, and groin will help cool the victim. A fan may be used to aid in evaporation of the water (evaporative method). Ice and very cold water can produce hypothermia; they should be used only when there are means to monitor the victim's temperature continuously.
Immersing a victim into a bathtub of cold water (immersion method) is a recognized method of cooling. This method requires the effort of 4-5 persons and the victim should be monitored carefully during the treatment process. This should be avoided for an unconscious victim; if there is no alternative, the victim's head must be held above water.
Hydration is of paramount importance in cooling the victim. This is achieved by drinking water (Oral rehydration). Commercial isotonic drinks may be used as a substitute. Alcohol and caffeine should be avoided, because of their diuretic properties. If the victim is confused, unconscious or unable to tolerate oral fluids, intravenous hydration (via a drip) is necessary.
Alcohol rubs will cause further dehydration and impairment of consciousness and should therefore be avoided. The victim's condition should be reassessed and stabilized by trained medical personnel. The victim's heart rate and breathing should be monitored, and CPR may be necessary if the victim goes into cardiac arrest.
The victim should be placed into the recovery position to ensure that their airway remains open.
Heat stroke can be prevented by observing common sense precautions to avoid overheating and dehydration. Light, loose-fitting clothing will allow perspiration to evaporate. Wide-brimmed hats keep the sun from warming the head and neck; vents on a hat will allow perspiration to cool the head. Strenuous exercise should be avoided during daylight hours in hot weather; so should remaining in enclosed spaces (such as automobiles). People who must be outside should be aware that humidity and the presence of direct sunlight may cause the heat index to be 10 °C or more hotter than the temperature indicated by a thermometer.
Persons in hot weather need to drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids lost from sweating. Thirst is not a reliable sign that a person needs fluids. A better indicator is the color of urine. A dark yellow color indicates dehydration. Alcohol, tea, and coffee are all diuretics and will exacerbate, rather than prevent, dehydration.
Hyperthermia can be intentionally produced for medical purposes. Thermotherapy, or therapy by induced hyperthermia, may be used as a cancer treatment to kill or weaken tumor cells, with negligible effects on healthy cells.