During a summer heat wave, emergency rooms fill up with people suffering from heat sickness. Many walk in complaining of cramps and exhaustion, and some are rushed in with heat stroke. "Heat stroke is the one we're most concerned about," says Mathew Walsh, MD, a doctor at Thomason Hospital in El Paso, Texas, and spokesman for the American College of Emergency Physicians.
Heat stroke victims, he says, are often near death. "They're treated the same as heart attacks or strokes or trauma patients."
The cause of heat stroke is simple: being too hot for too long. If sweating isn't enough to cool you down, your body temperature rises rapidly, up to 106 degrees in as little as ten or 15 minutes. That's hot enough to literally cook your brain. You pass out, and if you're not treated immediately, you will suffer brain damage or die.
When heat stroke victims are wheeled into the ER, Walsh says, doctors try to cool them by stripping off all their clothes, blowing air over them with fans (it also helps that ERs are air conditioned), and bathing them with lukewarm water. You would think it would be best to douse them with ice-cold water, but water that's too cold causes shivering, which actually warms the body more.
In the most extreme cases, doctors will put the victim on a respirator and give a drug to paralyze the body so they can bring the temperature down quickly.
Elderly at Risk
The elderly are most vulnerable to heat stroke, for various reasons. Imagine a widow living on her Social Security stipend in a neighborhood that was perfectly nice when she moved there in 1946, but has since become seedy. Her doors and windows are shut and locked for fear of burglars, and she doesn't run her air conditioner in order to keep her electric bills low.