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With temperatures hovering around the 40 degrees Celsius-mark and expected to go up, one of the more common, even fatal, heat-related medical conditions is a heatstroke. For it happens so quickly that there is not much time to react, and unless it is tackled swiftly, it can even damage the brain and other internal organs.
“Heatstroke occurs when the body temperature becomes greater than 105 degrees Fahrenheit (or 40 degrees Celsius) after exposure to high temperatures,” says Simran Saini, nutritionist at the Fortis Group of Hospitals, New Delhi. “It results from prolonged exposure to high temperatures, usually in combination with dehydration, which leads to the failure of the body’s temperature control system.”
Losing consciousness or fainting is almost certainly a sign of a heatstroke. “Other symptoms include dizziness, nausea or upset stomach, vomiting, red and hot skin with no sweating, throbbing headache, hallucinations, along with the obvious increased temperature of the body,” explains nutritionist Sonia Narang of Sonia Narang’s Diet And Wellness Clinics at East Patel Nagar, New Delhi.
Many people tend to dismiss these early signs as exhaustion or a heat cramp, “because the symptoms happen in a progressive state”, says Ishi Khosla, New Delhi-based dietitian and founder of Whole Foods India, a health-food chain. “Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat injury and consist of painful muscle cramps and spasms that occur during or after intense exercise and sweating in high heat. Heat exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps and results from loss of water and salt in the body. But heatstroke is the most severe form, a life-threatening emergency, and requires immediate medical attention.”
Heatstroke can also be divided into two categories: non-exertional heatstroke (Nehs) and exertional heatstroke (EHS). As the names suggest, Nehs is caused by a hot environment that leads to a rise in body temperature, without strenuous physical activity. EHS, however, is caused by an increase in body temperature brought on by physical activity in hot weather.
“Older people or people with chronic illness like heart diseases, obesity, Parkinson’s, uncontrolled diabetes, or those using certain medications such as diuretics, are more prone to Nehs. Children, athletes, or people who work in the sun, however, usually suffer from EHS as for them working or exercising in hot conditions or weather, without drinking enough fluids, is the main cause of heatstroke,” says Saini.
Besides obvious reasons like lack of fluids and exercising in the sun, factors like drinking alcohol and wearing dark-coloured clothes can lead to the body heating up, resulting in a heatstroke. “Drinking alcohol can affect your body’s ability to regulate your temperature that prevents your sweat from evaporating easily and cooling your body. Same with wearing too many clothes or very tight clothes,” says Khosla.
So while tight clothes could lead to heatstroke, would wearing loose clothes prevent it? “Of course,” says Narang. “Also, drink water every 20-30 minutes throughout the day; avoid caffeinated drinks or alcoholic beverages; reduce physical activity and avoid vigorous exercise (outdoors) in hot weather, especially from 11am-4pm; place bowls of water around your house as it helps cool the air through evaporation; and turn off non-essential lights and electrical equipment because they generate heat,” she adds.
Vegetables and fruits help replenish the body. “Almost 85% of fruits and vegetables is usually water. Some of the summer fruits and vegetables which help us to bear the rising mercury and also treat heatstrokes are: bael sharbat, sattu, lassi, cucumber, lemon, watermelon, mint, rose, saunf water and muskmelon,” says New Delhi-based clinical nutritionist Akshita Aggarwal.
And while they say prevention is better than cure, in the case of a heatstroke, cure must be instant—delay can be fatal.
“Call for an ambulance immediately. While waiting for medical help, move the person to a cool, shaded area and lay them down. Remove excess clothing and splash their skin with water or wrap in wet clothes, fanning continuously. Do not give the person fluids to drink. Position an unconscious person on their side, don’t crowd around, and clear the way for them to breathe. Monitor their body temperature where possible and continue with the cooling efforts until the body temperature drops below 38 degrees Celsius,” advises Narang.
Stay out of the sun as much as possible in the coming months.