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HomeHealth A-Z Hyperthermia
Hyperthermia
Hyperthermia
For those that will be out in the hottest hours of the day it’s important to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

Hyperthermia

(hy-per-THUR-mee-uh)

Definition of Hyperthermia

Hyperthermia is a serious medical condition in which the body's temperature reaches higher than normal levels, often due to prolonged exposure to heat or excessive physical activity. When body temperatures are above 104 degrees Fahrenheit or 40 degrees Celsius it is considered life-threatening.

Description of Hyperthermia

Hyperthermia, also known as sun stroke or heat stroke, is an illness that occurs when the human body gets hotter than it should. In medical terms, hyperthermia will occur when the body produced more heat, such as through a fever, or absorbs more heat such as through the sun than it can do away with. Hyperthermia is often overlooked, but can be a serious condition. When someone is truly suffering from hyperthermia the body is unable to regulate its temperature and the body temperature can climb and climb, to unsafe levels. When hyperthermia is suspected, individuals should seek medical attention promptly.

Hyperthermia, or sun or heat stroke, is not a condition that happens to people under normal circumstances, instead it happens with prolonged or excessive contact with heat. Hyperthermia is actually a condition that can be created by drugs or medical devices to treat cancer, but this is not done all that often.

Hyperthermia is often confused with hypothermia. Hyperthermia is a condition where the body gets too hot to function normally. Hypothermia is the exact opposite of hyperthermia as it is a condition where the body gets too cool to function normally. Both conditions can be life threatening, but the two should not be confused or one thought to be less life threatening than the other.

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Causes and Risk Factors of Hyperthermia

The cause of hyperthermia is the prolonged exposure to heat or medically induced hyperthermia. Risk factors associated with hyperthermia are being out in the heat too long, standing near a heating element too long, as well as not being hydrated or able to seek shade or cooler temperatures. When the body reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit the individual will feel ill but when it reaches 106 the brain will start to be adversely affected and if the temperature is allowed to reach 113 degree Fahrenheit death is more than likely. Exposing the body to conditions where it cannot cool itself will put anyone at risk, healthy or not, of developing hyperthermia which is a potentially fatal condition.

Luckily, the body will usually experience what is known as heat prostration or heat exhaustion before full blown heat stroke develops. This is a period of time where the body is trying to cool itself and is signaling to the person that they are in danger. Experiencing heat exhaustion and not responding makes someone more likely to develop heat stroke.

Those that are most commonly afflicted with heat stroke are children, the homeless, the poor, those who engage in activities outdoors during daylight hours, the elderly, and those with chronic mental or physical conditions

Symptoms of Hyperthermia

The first symptoms that a patient will experience are those linked with heat exhaustion. These symptoms are muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, and perhaps a bit of mental confusion. The individual may or may not be sweating while experiencing heat exhaustion.

Because the body’s main way of cooling itself is through perspiration, or sweating, if the person does not move to a cooler area or is not moved to a cooler area his or her body temperature can begin to rise dangerously and that is when full blown heat stroke will set in. Heat stroke is anytime when the body reaches over 103 degrees Fahrenheit.

If the body does not perspire the body and is not able to cool itself because it is dehydrated from already sweating before the condition set in, the temperature of the body can rise quite quickly. Many patients who suffer from heat stoke suffer from confusion, headaches, and may act drunk or combative. Because of the dehydration the patient is likely to have low blood pressure, which can cause dizziness and even fainting. Many times the patient will also experience an increase in heart rate and the skin will become quite red as blood vessels dilate in an attempt to cool the body.

While the body is hot many individuals suffer from the chills, just like they would if they have a fever. It is not unheard of for people with heat stroke to have convulsions, temporary blindness, and if the body temperature is not brought back down to a safe level the individual can fall into a coma and death can occur if action is not taken.

Diagnosis of Hyperthermia

The diagnosis of heat stroke is usually quite obvious, especially if the person has been exposed to high temperatures for long periods of time. Doctors will usually run a blood panel and do a series of exams and tests to ensure that there is not another cause for the symptoms. The main diagnostic factor is the temperature when the individual is not known to suffer from any other conditions that could cause such a high temperature. Because heat stroke usually comes on swiftly with no other preceding incidents doctors do not have a difficult time making this diagnosis.

Treatment of Hyperthermia

True heat stoke requires that the individual is admitted to the hospital. The goal is to lower the body temperature as quickly as possible. The individual needs to be taken to an area that is cooler than where they have been and clothing should be removed, if possible. The patient can be bathed in cool water, the body can be cooled with a hyperthermia vest, or they can simply be covered in cold towels. If these items are not available ice or cold compresses can be applied directly to the chest, head, neck, and groin to begin cooling the body. If possible a fan can be turned on to help wick the heat away from the patient’s skin. In hospital settings the patient is often lowered into a cool bath, though the temperature has to be monitored closely so a not to induce hypothermia.

In addition to cooling the body with fans, water, and cold towels and the like the patient also must be hydrated to continue the cooling process. Intravenous drips are the most common way to hydrate the patient as it is direct and can be done even if the patient is unconscious. Isotonic drinks are also a good way to go if the patient is able to drink. While cooling the patient it is pertinent that the airway is always open and accessible in case CPR needs to be administered.

Prevention of Hyperthermia

Preventing heat stroke is not difficult at all, in short one simply has to avoid over heating and dehydration. The way that this can be done is to wear light and loose clothing when you know you are going to be in the heat. This type of clothing will allow for perspiration to evaporate, aiding in the cooling process. Hats are also a good idea as they will keep the sun and heat from overheating the head and the neck.

It is also a good idea to time outdoor activities so they are not done during the hottest hours in the afternoon. It’s also important to recognize that humidity will play a role in how quickly the body will overheat. For those that will be out in the hottest hours of the day it’s important to drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.

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External Resources

Department of Health and Human Services

Princeton University

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