Heat Stroke Demands Proactive Medical Care

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As the United States faces record-breaking temperatures and unprecedented heat exposure due to global warming, medical professionals are calling for proactive measures to address the rising threat of heat stroke. While hospitals have systems in place to respond quickly to emergencies like strokes, cardiac problems, and severe trauma, there is a lack of preparedness for heat-related illnesses, which demand immediate care. 

A heat wave is currently affecting more than 140 million people in nearly three dozen states, with temperatures up to 20 degrees above normal in the Midwest and a dangerous heat wave in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions, lasting throughout the weekend. 

CNN reported that Heat stroke is one of the most common and deadly heat-related illnesses, becoming a significant problem during heat waves. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), extreme heat is the leading weather-related cause of death in the United States. The frequency of heatwaves has increased, with six times more heatwaves in the 2010s than in the 1960s, according to EPA data. 

Heat stroke affects approximately 20 out of every 100,000 people annually in the US, resulting in between 240 and 833 deaths from the condition. However, experts believe these figures may be undercounted for various reasons. 

The most vulnerable to heat stroke are the elderly, young children, individuals with underlying health conditions, overweight individuals, and those on certain medications. In the past two decades, there has been a 54% increase in heat-related mortality among people aged 65 and older. 

Even healthy young individuals can suffer from heat stroke, especially when engaged in outdoor work or exercise during high temperatures. In fact, heat-related illness is the leading cause of death and disability among US high school athletes. 

Heat stroke is characterized by the body rapidly overheating and losing its ability to cool down through sweating. When the core temperature reaches 106 degrees or higher, internal organs can shut down within minutes. 

One challenge with heat stroke is that its symptoms can mimic other conditions that lead people to seek emergency care, such as fever, hot and red skin, fast pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, and loss of consciousness. Consequently, healthcare providers should consider heat stroke as a possibility for any patient presenting with a fever, especially on warm days. 

Unfortunately, many emergency rooms lack an alert system for heat stroke cases, leading medical staff to scramble to provide timely treatment. Cooling the affected person within the first half-hour of symptoms is crucial, but delays can occur without proper preparedness. 

Dr. Cecilia Sorensen, an emergency room doctor and director of the Global Consortium on Climate and Health Education at Columbia University, stresses the urgency of integrating climate considerations into healthcare practices. Her group, with over 300 deans of health professional training schools in more than 60 countries, aims to train students in climate and health-related matters. 



Dr. Caleb Dresser, an emergency room physician and director of health care solutions at the Harvard Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment, highlights the geographical differences in heat-related mortality in the US. Northern states experience increased heat-related mortality despite lower temperatures, which indicates the importance of societal, physiological, cultural, and healthcare adaptations. 

To address the growing threat of heat-related illnesses, Dresser’s group has developed a toolkit for health professionals and patients to stay safe during hot weather. Harvard is also piloting a program that sends targeted alerts to healthcare professionals in areas with dangerous temperatures, providing them with information and guidance to protect patients. 

Proactive measures are crucial in managing heat-related illnesses. Individuals should check the weather before going out, stay indoors during extreme heat, if possible, venture outside in the morning when temperatures are lower, stay hydrated, wear loose-fitting lightweight clothing and sun protection, and check on vulnerable individuals, such as elderly neighbors and relatives. 

As the frequency and intensity of heat waves continue to rise, healthcare providers and society as a whole must take action to mitigate the impacts and protect vulnerable populations from the health risks associated with extreme heat. Being mindful of weather-related factors in patients’ illnesses and adopting proactive approaches are essential steps to keep people safe during hot weather. 

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