What is Hyperthemia?

Hyperthermia is overheating of the body. The word is made up of "hyper" (high) + "thermia" from the Greek word "thermes" (heat). Hyperthermia is literally high heat. There are a variety of heat-related illnesses, including heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Other heat-related health problems include heat cramps, heat rash and sunburn.

Summer can bring heat waves with unusually high temperatures that last for days and sometimes weeks. In the summer of 1980, a severe heat wave hit the United States, and nearly 1,700 people lost their lives from heat-related illness. Likewise, in the summer of 2003, tens of thousands of people died of the heat in Europe. High temperatures put people at risk.

What are the Symptoms?

One of the body's most important methods of temperature regulation is perspiration. This process draws heat from inside, allowing it to be carried off by radiation or convection. Evaporation of the sweat furthers cooling, since this endothermic process draws yet more heat from the body. When the body becomes sufficiently dehydrated to prevent the production of sweat this avenue of heat reduction is closed. When the body is no longer capable of sweating core temperature begins to rise swiftly.

Victims may become confused, may become hostile, often experience headache, and may seem intoxicated. Blood pressure may drop significantly from dehydration, leading to possible fainting or dizziness, especially if the victim stands suddenly. Heart rate and respiration rate will increase (tachycardia and tachypnea) as blood pressure drops and the heart attempts to supply enough oxygen to the body. The skin will become red as blood vessels dilate in an attempt to increase heat dissipation. The decrease in blood pressure will cause blood vessels to contract as hyperthemia progresses, resulting in a pale or bluish skin colour. Complaints of feeling hot may be followed by chills and trembling, as is the case in fever. Some victims, especially young children, may suffer convulsions. Acute dehydration such as that accompanying heat stroke can produce nausea and vomiting; temporary blindness may also be observed. Eventually, as body organs begin to fail, unconsciousness and coma will result.

Can It Be Prevented?

The risk of hyperthermia can be reduced by observing precautions to avoid overheating and dehydration. Light, loose-fitting clothing will allow perspiration to evaporate. Wide-brimmed hats in bright colour keep the sun from warming the head and neck; vents on a hat will allow perspiration to cool the head. Strenuous exercise should be avoided during daylight hours in hot weather; so should remaining in enclosed spaces (such as automobiles). People who must be outside should be aware that humidity and the presence of direct sunlight may cause the heat index to be 10 °C (18 °F) hotter than the temperature indicated by a thermometer.

In hot weather people need to drink plenty of liquids to replace fluids lost from sweating. Thirst is not a reliable sign that a person needs fluids. A better indicator is the color of urine. A dark yellow color indicates dehydration. Water, not sports drinks, is the most effective in replacing lost fluids.