How to Treat Hyperthermia
Learn How EMTs & Paramedics Identify, Treat and Care for Patients with Hyperthermia
EMS professionals need to be aware and prepared for many different types of cases. Hyperthermia is one of the most common 911 emergencies for EMTs and Paramedics, especially during summer. Hyperthermia occurs when an individual’s body cannot release heat fast enough to keep the body at a healthy temperature (around 98.6 ºF). The Environmental Protection Agency reports that nearly 600 people die yearly from excessive heat, which has increased annually with more prolonged and hotter temperatures during the summer. For this reason, a good EMT must be well-prepared to identify and treat hyperthermia.
To help you prepare EMS professionals, we will discuss what hyperthermia is, when hyperthermia occurs, the symptoms of hyperthermia, when to call 911, how to treat hyperthermia, and the equipment a successful EMT needs to be prepared for hyperthermia.
What Is Hyperthermia?
Hyperthermia is not to be confused with hypothermia. Hypothermia is a condition experienced when the body is too cold. Hyperthermia is a condition where the body is too warm. A healthy adult’s resting core body temperature is 98.6 F (37 C). When the body absorbs heat and cannot release the heat fast enough, there is a risk of hyperthermia. Even a degree above the average body temperature can be considered hyperthermia and can bring a few health complications.
Hyperthermia is not the same as a fever, although some symptoms are similar. When your body has a fever, your hypothalamus (the part of your brain that controls your body’s autonomic nervous system, homeostasis, and temperature) intentionally increases your core temperature to fight infection. However, hyperthermia is not induced deliberately by your body, hyperthermia results from your body’s inability to control your temperature.
What Are The Causes and Symptoms of Hyperthermia?
Hyperthermia occurs most often when an individual’s body has been physically exerted in a hot and humid environment. Hyperthermia can be more common when someone is dehydrated. Alcohol consumption, electrolyte deficiency, and old age can increase the likelihood of hyperthermia. Hyperthermia is better prevented than treated. The best strategy to avoid hyperthermia is to avoid hot environments. Utilizing air conditioning can help prevent hyperthermia in scorching environments. If an individual cannot escape an environment with excessive heat, it is essential to stay hydrated, avoid physical exertion and allow heat dissipation from the skin.
When to Call 911
Symptoms of hyperthermia include blurred vision, dizziness, fatigue, weakness, low blood pressure, rapid breathing and heart rate, headache, muscle cramps, light-headedness, fainting, and nausea or vomiting. Hyperthermia can lead to a variety of health complications. There are varying stages and forms of hyperthermia, each with its symptoms and complications.
- Heat Stress: This is the first stage of hyperthermia. The heat becomes trapped when the body begins to heat and does not have a proper channel to relieve it. An increased heart rate, a lack of concentration, and a feeling of sickness or irritability often mark heat stress. These are your first signs of taking a break and hydrating. If left unchecked, heat stress may develop into exhaustion, cramps, rash, or heat stroke.
- Heat Cramps: Cramping occurs in the arms, hands, lower legs, and feet when the body overheats. They are most common when the body has a deficiency of electrolytes. Heat cramps can occur at any stage of hyperthermia; however, they are often the first serious complication experienced by the condition.
- Heat Rash: Less severe; heat rash is symptomatic of hyperthermia. Heat rash occurs on the skin’s surface, often in locations where skin-to-skin contact is common such as the inner elbow. Heat rash can be irritating but is rarely a threatening condition. Heat rash will dissipate as the skin cools.
- Heat Exhaustion: When heat exhaustion occurs, the person may be at the beginning of a severe stage of hyperthermia. Heat exhaustion occurs when the body’s temperature reaches around 104 ºF. The affected individual will feel exhausted and unable to cool down. This will quickly lead to heatstroke.
- Heatstroke: This is the most severe and life-threatening stage of hyperthermia. Individuals are considered to have heatstroke when their core temperature reaches 104 ºF or higher. At this internal temperature, organs may fail, and the brain cannot function correctly. If the internal temperature reaches 106 ºF, there is a likely chance of permanent disability or death. Symptoms of heat stroke include slurred speech, confusion, loss of consciousness, and seizures.
If you or someone else is experiencing symptoms of hyperthermia, it is crucial to know when you should call 911. Emergency personnel should be notified at the first sign of possible heat stroke. Heat rash, cramps, and stress are all signs that you should find a cooler environment and rest. However, heat exhaustion is cause for concern. Medical attention is required if a person’s internal temperature is above 104 ºF. While waiting for emergency personnel, avoid rigorous movement, relax in a cool environment, and, if possible, consume liquids or apply liquids to the skin. Any temperature water is helpful, but it is best to drink room temperature water (50–60 ºF, 10–15 ºC) to allow the body to hydrate efficiently.
How to Treat Hyperthermia
Treatment can be carried out without medical personnel for cases of hyperthermia where the internal temperature does not exceed 104 ºF (40 ºC). For mild or moderate hyperthermia, including heat rash, heat stress, and heat cramps, it is advised to avoid physical assertion and find a cool environment to relax and lower your internal temperature.
Removing heavy or tight clothing and applying a cool compress on the skin can help treat mild hyperthermia. A lack of electrolytes often causes heat-related illnesses. Drinking a salty beverage can restore lost electrolytes. Avoid drinking caffeine. The irritated skin should be kept dry for heat rash, and a powder or ointment can relieve discomfort. A gentle stretch for the affected muscle can reduce cramping for heat cramps.
How Do EMTs and Paramedics Treat Hyperthermia?
EMTs and Paramedics are often required to treat cases of hyperthermia where a patient’s core temperature is above 104 ºF (40 ºC). At this temperature, the patient is experiencing heat stroke, and the longer they remain at an elevated temperature, the more likely they are to incur lasting complications.
While waiting for an ambulance to arrive, treatment for heat stroke should be done as quickly as possible. Immersing the patient in cool water or misting the patient with water is the most effective way to help cool the patient’s body. When experiencing heat stroke, water applied to the skin is just as effective as water consumed, so there is no need to try to get the patient to swallow liquids. Using icepacks to areas where heat can dissipate quickly, such as the neck, groin, and armpits, is advised. Do not attempt to give the patient any medication, such as aspirin or acetaminophen.
When the ambulance arrives or the patient has been taken to the hospital, healthcare workers, like EMTS and Paramedics, can use additional methods to cool the patient’s body. The most common advantage of an ambulance or hospital setting would be accessing an IV which can restore electrolytes and cool the patient’s body internally.
In severe cases, they may administer intravenous fluids and medications, such as antipyretics, to lower body temperature. If the person is unconscious or has a seizure, they will secure the airway and provide supportive care until they reach a medical facility for further treatment.
Necessary EMS Medical Equipment
What Are Some of The Necessary Tools That EMTs & Paramedics Require to Diagnose and Treat Hyperthermia
A well-trained EMT comes prepared with the proper equipment to deal with various conditions. Hyperthermia is not a condition requiring many materials or special equipment to treat. Since the goal of treatment is to lower the patient’s internal temperature, the equipment can be anything that removes the patient from a hot environment and rehydrates them. Some standard tools to help diagnose and treat hyperthermia are:
- Thermometer: To measure the body temperature and determine the extent of hyperthermia.
- Vital signs monitor: To monitor the heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rate.
- Oxygen mask and supplemental oxygen: To provide oxygen if necessary.
- Cool compresses: To apply to the skin to reduce body temperature.
- Misting equipment: To mist the skin with water to increase evaporation and cool the body.
- Fans: To increase airflow and evaporation to cool the body.
- Intravenous (IV) fluids: To rehydrate the person and lower body temperature.
- Medications: Such as antipyretics to lower body temperature.
- Airway equipment: To secure the airway and provide oxygen if the person becomes unconscious or has a seizure.
- Stretcher or backboard: To transport the person safely to a medical facility for further treatment.
The primary treatment for hyperthermia is to lower the person’s body temperature back to normal. For this reason, an umbrella, blanket, or even an ambulance can provide cover from the sun. Water bottles, fans, or a moist towel can help cool the patient. While the patient rests and lowers their temperature, lotion can help soothe burnt or irritated skin.
EMT Response Training for Hyperthermia
A good EMT is appropriately trained to deal with hyperthermia. Good training teaches an EMT that the most important details are the urgency of treatment and the patient’s temperature. EMT response training for hyperthermia typically involves the following skills and techniques:
- Identifying and assessing hyperthermia: EMTs learn how to recognize the signs and symptoms of hyperthermia and how to measure the body temperature using a thermometer.
- Cooling techniques: EMTs are trained in various cooling techniques, such as removing excessive clothing, applying cool compresses, misting the skin with water, or using fans to increase evaporation.
- Intravenous fluid therapy: EMTs learn how to administer intravenous fluids to rehydrate the person and lower body temperature.
- Medication administration: EMTs are trained to administer medications such as antipyretics to lower body temperature.
- Airway management: EMTs learn how to secure the airway and provide oxygen if the person becomes unconscious or has a seizure.
- Transport and patient care: EMTs are trained on how to transport the person safely to a medical facility while providing ongoing patient care, including monitoring vital signs and giving oxygen as needed.
A quick reaction can drastically improve a patient’s condition, as spending an extended period at an elevated temperature can lead to lasting complications.
How to Avoid/Prevent Hyperthermia
The best way to prevent or avoid hyperthermia is to regulate your body temperature and stay hydrated. Avoiding over-exertion in hot climates is essential, and extended periods in direct sunlight are crucial. Also, avoid wearing tight or heavy clothes, especially if you know you’ll be outdoors when the temperature is up. Loose fitting and light clothing allow your body’s natural homeostasis to work correctly, such as sweating. Keeping well-hydrated with fluids containing electrolytes can help your body function properly.
Hyperthermia occurs when the body temperature rises above its healthy 98.6 ºF, and serious conditions occur around 104 ºF. This common and potentially deadly condition requires quick and effective treatment to avoid permanent or life-threatening consequences. A properly trained EMT knows that treatment involves lowering the body’s temperature and restoring the ability to maintain homeostasis through hydration. With this proper training and strategies, you can help those experiencing hyperthermia more effectively and ensure their condition doesn’t worsen.
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