The 3 Most Dangerous Myths about Heat Strokes

To keep yourself and the people around you safe this summer, it’s important to know the warning signs and symptoms of different heat-related illness—including heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. More than this general information, there are certain myths and half-truths that continue to be widely believed and can have truly dangerous consequences when making real-time decisions. There are three, in particular, that we wanted to draw attention to.

1. If the Person is Still Sweating, It’s Not an Emergency.

We’ve also heard this myth stated like this: “You can tell the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke when the person stops sweating.” There is some truth to this. A person who has become so dehydrated and overheated that they lose their ability to sweat IS more than likely experiencing a heat stroke. However, just because a person is still sweating doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t experiencing a heat stroke. Exertional heat stroke, in which the person is engaged in strenuous activity, may occur even if the person is still sweating, often excessively.

A person with serious signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke should do more than just take a breather.   If the person is seriously disoriented, weak, vomiting, overheated, and/or has a very rapid or a very slow heartbeat, it may be imperative that the person is removed from the heat and that they seek immediate medical attention.

2. Children and the Elderly are the Most Vulnerable to Heat Stroke.

This is another half-truth. Yes, the very young and the very old are less efficient in their ability to regulate their body temperatures. This makes them more susceptible to non-exertional heat stroke. Sitting in the stands and watching a grandchild or older sibling at a sporting event in the middle of the summer is one common situation. In contrast, young adults are more susceptible to exertional heat stroke brought on by strenuous activity in a summer heat wave.

While age is definitely one important factor, there are also a number of underlying medical and biological conditions that can make someone more vulnerable to heat stroke and heat-related illness. This includes drugs and alcohol, high blood pressure, obesity, infections, and pregnancy. Consider the following facts from the Colorado Health Institute:

  • Almost six percent of Colorado’s adults have cardiovascular disease, putting them at an increased risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
  • The seven percent of Colorado’s adults with diabetes can have trouble cooling their bodies on hot days—as well as increased difficulty regulating their insulin/blood sugar levels.
  • More than just childhood development, the state’s 1.2 million children are vulnerable because they have a greater ratio of skin surface to weight.

3. An Ice Bath or Ice Water May Cause the Person to Go into Shock.

It makes a lot of intuitive sense. The body needs to regulate its temperature within a narrow range, and dealing with the extreme cold and heat at the same time may send it into….shock? Except this isn’t even really a half-truth. There’s little-to-no evidence that the body will go into shock or that the dangers of cold-water immersion in any way outweigh the potentially life-saving benefit. Multiple studies have concluded that cold-water immersion including ice baths are an effective treatment or even the gold standard for heat stroke and hyperthermia. The life-saving fact to recognize is that time is of the essence. This is why the best advice is to cool the person down using whatever means are available.

Even still, there are numerous sources that talk about the downside of drinking ice water and taking ice baths during the summer. To a large extent, this disagreement can be boiled down to acute vs. long-term health effects. It’s one thing to claim that consistently drinking ice water in the summer reduces your body’s ability and efficiency in regulating body temperature. It’s another thing entirely—and a dangerous myth at that—to claim that the risk of “shock” outweighs the potential life-saving effects of cold-water immersion.


More Heat Stress Facts

Learn to separate more facts from fiction with these information resources about heat-related illnessesrisk factors in Colorado, and where to go when someone is having a heat stroke. Some of the other facts that caught our eye come from this list from the Center for Disease Control. Don't let these myths contribute to your risk of heat-related illness.

  • Salt tablets are a great way to restore electrolytes lost during sweating.
  • Taking a break in the air conditioning will ruin your acclimatization.
  • Acclimatization will protect you during a heat wave.

Instead, staying hydrated and avoiding strenuous activity and prolonged exposure to heat waves is the best way to stay safe this summer. For follow-up care after a heat stroke, get help from one urgent care and family medicine centers. Rocky Mountain Urgent Care and Family Medicine in Aurora offers extended care hours from 8am—9pm every day.

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