Jessamine County Coroner

Heat Emergencies

In a previous article, I discussed heat-related injury and death occurring in infants as a result of being left in a vehicle during warm weather.  As a reminder, these children die as a result of hyperthermia, or heatstroke, which occurs when the body’s core temperature rises above 104 degrees.  The outside temperature need not be excessively hot to cause heatstroke as the temperature inside a closed vehicle (even with the windows cracked) can exceed 110 degrees very quickly.  A child left alone, even for a short time can develop seizures, convulsions, unconsciousness and death.  Never, ever leave a young child alone in a parked vehicle, even for a minute!  Not only would you be endangering his or her life, but if caught, you will be charged with child endangerment!

Heat related injury and illness also affects many adults, especially during a “heatwave”.  Heat cramps (caused by loss of salt from heavy sweating) usually develop first, and can lead to heat exhaustion (caused by dehydration), which can progress to heatstroke.  Heatstroke can cause shock, brain damage, organ failure, and death. 

Such heat-related emergencies are the result of prolonged exposure to extreme heat.  Heat exhaustion can occur even when the body temperature is just slightly above normal (from 98.6 up to 104 degrees).  At these temperatures, the water and salt in the body begin to deplete, causing nausea, faintness and heavy sweating.  Treatment at this level is as simple as moving the person to a cool place, giving water to drink and removing excess clothing.  Without treatment, heatstroke may develop.  Some people, including children under two years old, very elderly folks, and those with kidney, heart or circulatory conditions, as well as insulin dependent diabetics are at higher risk of heatstroke and dehydration, and should be taken to a hospital if they don’t cool rapidly. 

Heatstroke is far more serious than heat exhaustion, as it occurs when the body can no longer cool itself (above core temperature of 104 degrees).  At this point cells in the body begin to break down and major organs stop functioning. If not treated promptly, organ failure, brain damage and death may ensue.  Symptoms of heatstroke include mental confusion, rapid shallow breathing (hyperventilation), and loss of consciousness.

Heatstroke is a medical emergency, and 911 should be called if suspected.  Make every effort to cool the victim immediately by removing excess clothing, moving them to a cool area, and if they are conscious, give them cool (not cold) water to drink, and cool their skin with cold water if possible.  Never give alcoholic or caffeinated beverages as alcohol may further dehydrate the body.

Steps you can take to avoid both conditions include:

  • Keep out of the sun during the hottest part of the day
  • Avoid extreme physical exertion
  • Drink plenty of cold drinks, avoiding caffeine and alcohol
  • Eat cold foods, such as salads and fruit with high water content
  • Spray water on your skin, or place a damp cloth on your neck
  • Keep in as cool an environment as possible during heatwaves
  • Never, ever leave anyone, at any age, in a parked vehicle
  • When going outdoors, walk in the shade, apply sunscreen and wear a hat or scarf
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