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Heat exhaustion and heat stroke

Author: Dr. Andreas Moustris MD, MSc

Despite large variations in environmental temperature, the core temperature of the human body remains remarkably stable. This is achieved through a number of physiological homeostatic mechanisms that are regulated by the hypothalamus. The latter is a neural structure located at the base of the brain that essentially functions like a thermostatic switch: when the temperature of the body rises, it coordinates the dilatation of peripheral veins, a boost in cardiac output and increased production of sweat by the relative glands, so that the excess of thermal energy is dissipated to the environment.

However, under certain circumstances, these homeostatic mechanisms may not be sufficient. In that case, the core temperature of the body gradually increases, leading to the emergence of a spectrum of symptoms. The first stages constitute the syndrome of heat exhaustion, that may lead to:

If heat exhaustion is left untreated, it may lead to heat stroke, a serious medical emergency, that is characterised by:

 
Who gets heat exhaustion and heat stroke?
Young, otherwise healthy individuals, may get heat stroke by engaging in strenuous exercise during a very hot and humid day. When heart stroke is non-exertional, most cases tend to involve elderly people with chronic diseases that affect thermoregulatory mechanisms or impede their removal from a hot environment.
Particularly susceptible groups are:

Avoiding heat exhaustion and heat stroke