A little fun in the sun is one thing, but when it could put you at risk for heat stroke, it's time to take some precautions. That's the message from the Pennsylvania Medical Society and experts all across the country, who warn both adults and children alike that heat stroke is a potentially deadly illness to be avoided—even if it means sacrificing a day at the beach.

Summer Survival Strategies

"Heat stroke is not an accident," says Dr. Marilyn J. Heine, an emergency-room physician in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. "But it's a condition that generally can be prevented with a little effort and lots of common sense." She offers the following tips for keeping cool:

  • Don't overexert yourself.
  • Drink a quart of fluids an hour.
  • Wear loose clothing in light colors and fabrics, as well as a hat and sunscreen, and stay in the shade or indoors if possible.
  • Open windows and use fans, or turn on the air-conditioning. If you don't have air-conditioning, go to a public place that does, like a mall, library, or movie theater.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which can speed up dehydration.
  • Check on elderly and chronically ill persons regularly to make sure they're holding up under the heat.

Happens Too Frequently

Despite the many preventative measures people can take, heat stroke happens frequently. "Over the summer, we see too many cases of heat-related illness in the emergency room," Heine says. Professional athletes, players at the high-school and college level, as well as non-athletes, have all fallen victim to the potentially life-threatening condition.

In fact, Heine recalls a 78-year-old woman who was rushed to the ER after a neighbor noticed she hadn't left her apartment for two days when temperatures surpassed 90 degrees. The woman was dehydrated, with a temperature of 104.7 degrees and decreased blood pressure of 100/70. Fortunately, she was resuscitated with intravenous fluids and then hospitalized, Heine says.

What Is Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke is an injury to internal organs caused by excessively high body temperature that can damage the central nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, and other organs. There are two types of heat stroke: exertional, or activity-induced, which primarily affects athletes, laborers, and soldiers; and classic, or non-exercise-induced, which can affect anyone exposed to extremely hot environments for extended lengths of time.

In general, those most at risk for classic, or non-exercise-induced, heat stroke are the elderly; infants; people with chronic illness, such as heart and other cardiovascular diseases; and people on certain medications. Individuals who consume large amounts of caffeine and alcohol may also be susceptible, Heine warns.

Symptoms of Heat Problems

So, how can you predict when the heat is most likely to take its toll? Relative humidity of at least 70 percent and temperatures of 95 degrees or more are the first warning signs, according to the National Weather Service. Also, be alert to other heat-related afflictions, such as heat cramps (characterized by muscle spasms and a normal temperature), and heat exhaustion (evidenced by pale, moist skin, headache, dizziness, nausea, increased heart rate, low blood pressure, elevated temperature, and profuse sweating). If you experience any of these symptoms, get out of the heat, rest, and drink plenty of cool fluids, preferably ones containing sugar and salt, Heine suggests.

The symptoms of a full-blown case of heat stroke are similar to those mentioned above but are even more severe and may include:

  • profuse sweating, then hot, dry, red skin;
  • high fever;
  • vomiting;
  • confusion;
  • seizures during cooling;
  • unconsciousness.

Blood pressure may be low or high; lack of sweating is common, though athletes may perspire; and body temperature often will be 105 degrees or higher.

If a friend or family member experiences any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately, move the victim to a cooler location, remove any heavy clothing, fan the body, apply a cool sponge or cloth to the skin, and encourage the individual to drink cool fluids. At the hospital, the patient probably will be given fluids intravenously, Heine says.