How to Prevent Heatstroke

Preventing heatstroke

PraewBlackWhile / iStock / Getty Images

The body can normally withstand large increases in temperature—mostly due to sweating which helps to cool us down—but our cooling system can fail during the summer months, when heatstroke is most common.

Without proper hydration or periodically cooling ourselves down the body’s core temperature can rise to dangerously high levels. Heatstroke is a medical emergency. If left untreated, organ failure can occur, putting you at serious risk of medical complications or even death.

The vast majority of these deaths are preventable. It is critical for seniors, small children, and those who participate regularly in outdoor activities, such as construction workers and athletes, to stay cool.

Preventing heat-related illness can save an average of 702 lives per year.

Air-Conditioning Is Key

The number one way to prevent heatstroke, or any heat-related illness, is air conditioning.

Along with older adults over the age of 65, the poor, socially isolated, overweight, and those with preexisting medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease are also at higher risk of heat-related illnesses. However, even young and healthy individuals can be impacted.

Therefore, it is important for all buildings and man-made environments to be equipped with an adequate cooling system. Most experts believe that the ideal temperature for seniors is between 68 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Hydrate Frequently

Drink plenty of water—a cup (8 ounces) of water every hour during non-strenuous activity or a cup every 15 to 20 minutes during strenuous activity—especially on hot days.

Our bodies produce a tremendous amount of heat and sweating is an important mechanism to keep us cool. Frequent hydration helps us to avoid dehydration and bolsters our ability to sweat and radiate heat through our skin, keeping our body temperature from reaching dangerously high levels.

Limit Strenuous Activity

There are two forms of heatstroke—classic and exertional. Classic heatstroke typically affects elderly individuals with chronic medical conditions while exertional heat stroke affects otherwise healthy people who engage in strenuous exercise in hot or humid weather.

When working outside or participating in strenuous activities take occasional breaks and mist yourself with a spray bottle. If possible, avoid performing strenuous work during peak hours of the day, between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m., especially on hot and humid days.

Protect Against Sunburn

Sunburn diminishes the skin's ability to cool itself. To avoid sunburn frequently apply a generous amount of broad-spectrum sunscreen of at least 15 sun protection factor (SPF).

Current guidelines recommend reapplying sunscreen every two hours with more frequent applications when swimming or sweating. Also, use a wide brim hat and umbrella especially on the beach.

Find Some Shade 

Features common to urban cities such as buildings made of concrete and asphalt cause temperatures to rise more quickly than rural areas, even in the absence of a heatwave. This is called the urban heat island effect.

People can reduce their risk of heat-related illness by periodically spending time outside in the shade or in public facilities with air conditioning.

Prepare for Warm Weather

Wearing loose clothing and sun-protective gear such as sunglasses is important in preventing heat injury. Gradually acclimating yourself to warm temperatures, checking the temperature throughout the day, and limiting alcohol and caffeinated drinks are also important habits to incorporate to prevent heat-related illness.

Check on Infants and Loved Ones

Never leave a child or pet in a car a closed or parked car on a warm day, even if the windows are cracked. A parked car can rise 20 degrees F (6.7 degrees C) in 10 minutes.

On average 39 children under the age of 15 die from heatstroke after being left in a vehicle. This is by far the most common form of mortality due to heat-related injury in children.

During heat waves, check on people at risk for heat-related injury such as the elderly and disabled or homebound people. Parents and caretakers of the elderly should ensure that assisted living facilities, skilled nursing facilities, nursing homes, and private homes are equipped with adequate cooling system units.

The symptoms of heatstroke are different for many individuals and may resemble other medical conditions, therefore frequent check-ins increase a caregiver’s chance of seeing subtle changes in a person’s condition.

Be Cautious If You’re at Higher Risk

Not only do certain medical conditions such as obesity, hypertension, heart disease, and diabetes increase one’s risk of heat-related illness, but some medications—including many of the mediations most commonly used to treat these chronic conditions—impair the body’s ability to regulate temperature or inhibit perspiration.

Anyone on regular medication should check in with their doctor to find out if they are on a medication that may increase their risk of heat-related injury.

When to Get Emergency Help

If you think someone is experiencing heatstroke call 911 or your local emergency services. 

First Aid for Signs of Heat Illness

Heatstroke can cause permanent damage or death so quick and decisive attention can be lifesaving. If you suspect that someone may be experiencing heat injury:

  • Have someone call for medical assistance
  • Move the person out of the heat and place them in a cool environment
  • Remove tight or heavy clothing
  • Place cold water on the individual; fan to stimulate sweating
  • Place an ice pack under the armpits and groin of the individual to initiate rapid cooling
  • Have the person lie down on their back with their feet slightly elevated
  • Have the person drink cool water or a non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverage
  • Take the individual’s temperature with a thermometer if possible and monitor closely
8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Vaidyanathan A, Malilay J, Schramm P, Saha S. Heat-related deaths — United States, 2004–2018. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 69:729–734. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6924a1

  2. Davis RE, Knappenberger PC, Novicoff WM, Michaels PJ. Decadal changes in heat-related human mortality in the eastern United States. Clim Res. 22(2):175–84. doi:10.3354/cr022175

  3. National Institute on Aging. Cold weather safety for older adults.

  4. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Heat-related illnesses (heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat stroke).

  5. Wexler RK. Evaluation and treatment of heat-related illnessesAm Fam Physician. 65(11):2307-2314.

  6. American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreen FAQs

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tips for preventing heat-related illness.

  8. National Safety Council. Hot car deaths.

By Shamard Charles, MD, MPH
Shamard Charles, MD, MPH is a public health physician and journalist. He has held positions with major news networks like NBC reporting on health policy, public health initiatives, diversity in medicine, and new developments in health care research and medical treatments.