Heat stroke

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  • Severe end of heat-related illness spectrum
  • True emergency - universally fatal if left untreated
    • Mortality approaches 30% even with treatment[1]
  • Hallmark is multisystem organ dysfunction from heat-induced damage resulting in systemic inflammatory response


  • Classic (nonexertional) - insidious development over days
    • Seen in children and elderly
  • Exertional - rapid onset during exercise or other exertion
    • Seen in otherwise young, healthy individuals

Clinical Features

  • Symptoms[2]
  • Anhidrosis is frequently present; however, its absence does NOT rule out heat stroke
  • May have massive hematochezia secondary to dec perfusion and intestinal ischemia[3]

Differential Diagnosis

Environmental heat diagnoses


Altered mental status and fever



  • Core temperature (continuous monitoring is ideal, e.g. with bladder temperature monitor)
  • Blood glucose
  • ECG
  • CBC
  • Metabolic panel
  • LFTs
  • Blood gas
  • Lactate
  • Coagulation studies (DIC)
  • Creatine phosphokinase and myoglobin (Rhabdomyolisis)
  • Urinalysis
  • Chest x-ray
  • CT brain (± LP), if indicated (Cerebral Edema)


  • Clinical diagnosis


  • Address ABCs
  • Rapid cooling (see below) - mainstay of treatment
    • Reduces morbidity/mortality, should be started in prehospital setting if no other life-threats exist[2]
  • Remove from environment
  • IVF (for renal protection and avoiding rhabdomyolysis)
    • Bolus if hypotensive
    • Infusion titrated to UOP (goal 2-3ml/kg/hr)

Rapid Cooling

  • Cooling end point should be ~39°C (102.2°F) - no good data for this goal[1]
  • No role for: antipyretics or dantrolene
  • Combination of methods, or adjuncts such as cool IVF may increase efficacy of individual methods


  • Cool water immersion - treatment of choice[2][4]
    • Immersion of body to level of torso or neck in cool or ice-water
    • Best for exertional heat stroke in young/healthy patients, but benefit shown in elderly patients as well
    • Diffuse application of ice or cold packs to entire body may provide similar benefit (but less data)
      • Applying ice packs only to neck, axillae, groin provides only minimal cooling[1]
    • Benefits: most rapid decrease in temperature, some studies have shown 100% survival (esp when started within 30 minutes of collapse)[1][2][4]
    • Disadvantages: requires special equipment (may not be immediately available), poorly tolerated, unable to provide defibrillation or many other resuscitative measures
  • Evaporative/Convective Cooling
    • Spray cool water (15°C / 59°F) on patient while directing fans at patient
    • Benefits: Easier to apply in ED and while performing other interventions
    • Disadvantages: Slower cooling (than immersion) with slightly higher morbidity/mortality
  • Invasive
    • Techniques such as cardiopulmonary bypass/ECMO or cold water lavage of body cavities has been reported, but inadequate data to recommend[1]


  • Hypotension
    • Usually responds to small fluid bolus (500cc) and body cooling
    • If no response to fluids → consider vasopressors (dopamine or dobutamine)
      • Avoid peripheral vasoconstriction (e.g. norepinephrine), which may redirect blood flow away from skin and diminish cooling
  • Electrolyte abnormalities
    • Variable: hypokalemia and hyper or hyponatremia may be seen
  • Hematologic - DIC or abnormal bleeding
  • Hepatic injury - almost always reversible
  • Renal failure
  • ARDS
  • Seizure - treat with Benzodiazepines
  • Neurologic deficit
    • Persistent in 20%, associated with high mortality


  • All patients require admission

See Also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 Gaudio FG, Grissom CK. Cooling Methods in Heat Stroke. J Emerg Med. 2015 Oct 31.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 Becker JA, Stewart LK. Heat-related illness. Am Fam Physician. 2011 Jun 1;83(11):1325-30.
  3. Lambert GP. Intestinal barrier dysfunction, endotoxemia, and gastrointestinal symptoms: the 'canary in the coal mine' during exercise-heat stress? Med Sport Sci. 2008;53:61-73.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Pryor RR, Roth RN, Suyama J, Hostler D. Exertional heat illness: emerging concepts and advances in prehospital care. Prehosp Disaster Med. 2015 Jun;30(3):297-305.