A man jogs in the early morning heat.
Kids & Family Health

Heatstroke, and How to Avoid It

Southern California is world famous for its weather. On any given day, people living in Los Angeles and Orange County can enjoy highs of 72 degrees, a slight breeze, and plenty of sun. It’s no surprise, then, that spending time outdoors is ingrained in our culture.

In the summertime, however, the region is vulnerable to heat waves that are becoming worse due to climate change. 2023 was the hottest year in earth’s history including for many parts of SoCal. This punishing and sustained spike in temperature can impact anybody, though children, seniors, and outdoor workers are often most affected. If endured for too long, high heat can overpower your body’s natural temperature and wreak havoc on your health. This condition is known as heat stroke, and while minor complications may include headaches or nausea, it can also lead to brain damage, organ failure, and even death.

From vacations and beach days to sports games and yard work, we’ll spend plenty of time outside this summer. As temperatures rise, here’s how to recognize, treat, and prevent heat stroke. 

The Warning Signs

During periods of intense heat, physical movement becomes increasingly demanding on your body. Even normal activities like walking, gardening, or playing games can lead to risk of heat stroke. If you and your family are spending time outside, be sure to watch for:

  • Hot, red, dry, or damp skin
  • A fast, strong pulse
  • A throbbing headache
  • Dizziness 
  • Nausea or an upset stomach
  • Confusion
  • High body temperature (above 103°F)
  • Loss of consciousness (passing out)

One or more of these symptoms can indicate heat stroke, and it’s essential to take them seriously. 

A man uses a fan to cool down.

The Recovery Process

If you or a loved one experiences heat stroke symptoms, seek medical attention right away. Heat strokes are health emergencies, and prompt intervention can prevent further complications. Here’s what to do while waiting for care:

  • Move to a Cooler Place — Get the affected individual into a shady or air-conditioned area as quickly as possible.
  • Cool the Body — Use whatever means available to cool the person down rapidly. This can include:
    • Applying cool water to the skin.
    • Using fans or AC to lower the ambient temperature.
    • Placing ice packs or cold, wet towels on the person's body, focusing on areas like the neck, armpits, and groin where blood vessels are close to the skin's surface.
  • Encourage Hydration — If the person is conscious and able to swallow, give them cool water or a sports drink to help rehydrate their body. Do not force fluids if the person is unconscious or unable to swallow, as this could lead to choking.
  • Monitor Vital Signs — Keep an eye on the person's temperature and other vital signs. If their condition does not improve or if they lose consciousness, call 911 immediately.
  • Stay with Them — Remain with the person until help arrives and continue to assist as needed.

High-Risk Groups

Individuals at elevated risk for heat stroke include:

  • Infants
  • Young children
  • Athletes
  • Older Adults
  • People living alone
  • People with chronic medical conditions
  • People who work outdoors for extended periods
  • Pets

Even if you do not fall within these groups, it’s necessary to take precautions. Healthy, able-bodied adults can still get heat stroke.

A woman drinks water while exercising.

Stopping Heat Stroke Before It Starts

From frequent water breaks to proper attire, follow these tips to help prevent heat stroke from ever occurring:

  • Stay Informed — Pay attention to weather forecasts and heat advisories in your area. If possible, adjust your schedule to avoid prolonged time outside.
  • Dress Appropriately — If you must be outside, wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that allows your body to breathe and sweat effectively. For further comfort, wear a hat and sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher.
  • Limit Outdoor Activities — The hottest part of the day is usually between 3pm and 6pm. Try to schedule outdoor activities before lunch or after sunset to take advantage of lower temperatures.
  • Seek Shade — When outdoors, stay in shaded areas as much as possible to avoid direct sunlight.
  • Stay Hydrated — Drink plenty of water throughout the day, especially when you are outdoors or engaging in physical activity.
  • Take Breaks — If you are working or exercising in hot conditions, take frequent breaks. Under California law, workers are entitled to specific heat illness protections. 
  • Use Cooling Measures — Use fans, AC, or cool showers to lower your body temperature when necessary.
  • Limit Alcohol and Caffeine — These substances can contribute to dehydration, so it’s best to limit their intake, especially in hot weather.
  • Check on Others — Keep an eye on children, elderly individuals, and pets, as they are more vulnerable to the heat.
  • Know Your Limits — Listen to your body and avoid pushing yourself too hard. If you start feeling overheated or unwell, stop what you’re doing and take immediate action to cool down.

Extra Precautions During Heat Waves

During prolonged periods of intense heat, it's necessary to take additional safety precautions. If you live without access to air conditioning, the city of Los Angeles offers cooling centers where you can rest and recharge. Click here to find a location near you or call 211. When out of the house, do not leave children or pets unattended in vehicles under any circumstances. Cars can rise in temperature quickly, even with windows open. If you see children or animals left alone, call 911 immediately. When walking pets, avoid concrete and pavement, as these surfaces will burn their paws. 

Keeping Cool with AltaMed

For over 55 years, AltaMed has served communities across Southern California. No matter the forecast, we can help you with health matters both urgent and routine. To find primary care providers, specialists, pharmacy services, and more, click here or call (888) 499-9303.

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Heatstroke, and How to Avoid It