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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
Heat stroke victims, he says, are often near death.
"They're treated the same as heart attacks or strokes or trauma
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
On a hot, humid day, she's already in trouble: These conditions
are enough to bring on heat stroke. When the air is humid and stagnant, sweat
cools the body less efficiently because it can't evaporate. What's more, older
people sweat less than younger people.
But let's say this widow takes blood pressure medication, which
blunts her thirst, so she doesn't drink enough water. Then, to make matters
worse, she has a beer after her morning coffee and chain-smokes. All these
things dehydrate her. So she sweats even less, her body temperature soars, and
by the time the Meals-on-Wheels man comes to bring her dinner, she's dead.