Heat Waves and Heat Stroke: Signs, Symptoms, Treatment and How to Stay Safe

Tochukwu Nathaniel

Did you know that Monday, the 4th of July, 2023, was reportedly the hottest day ever recorded globally? Sounds strange, right, but it’s true. Interestingly, the ‘second hottest day ever’ was in August 2016, just a few years back. It’s amazing and probably a little bit scary that in the history of the earth, we’ve had temperatures reaching record degrees within a decade of each other. High-temperature levels are becoming a norm, and it’s best to know how to keep yourself cool and safe in the midst of the heat.

Heat waves are anything but fun in the sun. Severe heat and humidity can be very uncomfortable and dangerous for one’s well-being. Severe heat can cause heat stroke and, in the worst-case scenario, even death if the appropriate safety measures are not taken. Heat waves have become longer, more frequent, and more severe due to climate change. 

Extreme heat
Extreme heat

What Exactly are Heat Waves? 

Heat waves occur when temperatures soar above normal for an extended period, often accompanied by high humidity, making it feel even hotter. These events are a natural part of weather patterns but are becoming more frequent and intense due to climate change, which traps heat in the atmosphere.

What is Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke is a serious condition that occurs when the body overheats to a dangerous level. When exposed to high temperatures for too long, especially during heat waves, the body’s ability to regulate its temperature can become overwhelmed. This can lead to a rapid increase in body temperature, causing symptoms such as confusion, dizziness, nausea, and even loss of consciousness. 

Heat stroke is a medical emergency and requires immediate attention. If left untreated, it can result in organ damage, brain injury, or even death.


Who’s most at risk from heat waves?

While excessive heat poses risks to everyone, certain groups are particularly vulnerable. Infants and pregnant women face higher risks of heat-related illnesses due to their bodies’ reduced ability to regulate temperature. 


For infants and children, heat waves can be a death sentence if not properly handled. Their bodies have more trouble regulating temperature than adults, and so they rely on adults to help protect them from heat.

Pregnant Women

The impact of heat waves on pregnant women can also be quite severe. Too much heat and dehydration can put the baby at higher risk of low birth weight, early birth, or even stillbirth. Pregnant women themselves can be negatively affected and go into early labour. They also stand the risk of developing gestational diabetes and hypertension. 

How to stay safe during a heat wave

  1. Be prepared! Stay informed about upcoming weather conditions. Always be sure to find out how hot and humid it would get daily, weekly, and even for the month so you can appropriately plan outside activities.
  2. Keep an emergency kit stocked with essentials like oral rehydration salts, water bottles, a thermometer, towels or cloths to wet for cooling, a handheld fan or mister with batteries, and a checklist to identify and treat symptoms of heat stress.
  3. Know how to access medical assistance if needed. Note the contact information for the nearest health care provider or ambulance/transport services.

How to create a cool atmosphere in your home and stay safe from heat waves

  1. Close the curtains during the hottest parts of the day and open windows at night to cool down the house.
  2. Use fans and coolers if available.
  3. Stay out of the heat. Do not go outside during the hottest times of the day if you can avoid it. Try to arrange your activities earlier or later in the day when it is cooler.
  4. When outside, wear sunscreen and try to stay in the shade or use hats and umbrellas for protection.
  5. Stay hydrated. Drink water at regular intervals before you are thirsty.
  6. Don’t overdress. Overdressing in the heat can make you dehydrated and get hotter faster. Wear light and loose clothes. Cotton is ideal during hot days to help reduce heat rashes and absorb sweating. Similarly, cotton bed sheets are recommended over non-breathable materials.
  7. Carry a water bottle and a small towel to hydrate and cool your body temperature down by placing a wet towel on your neck.
  8. Check to see if your community has a heat relief or cooling centre near you. You could also use the waiting areas of health facilities as a temporary cooling shelter.  

Tips for infants, children, and pregnant women

DOs for Infants and children

  1. DO check regularly if your child is thirsty, sweating, feeling hot, vomiting, has a dry and sticky mouth, or experiencing headaches. If your child is not responding properly, has a high fever, is dizzy, or is breathing fast, take them to the health facility immediately. 
  2. DO make sure that your child is clothed loosely – this can help prevent heat rashes and becoming too hot. 
  3. DO check that your child is well hydrated. They may not know what dehydration and heat stress feel like. Breastfeed infants under six months exclusively. Breastfeeding mothers should drink plenty of water as dehydration can affect breast milk production.​ Children aged six months and over should drink water regularly throughout the day. Don’t DO NOT give infants medication if they are showing signs of being overheated without consulting a health provider. 

Donts for Infants and children

  1. DO NOT leave infants and children in closed spaces without ventilation, such as cars or rooms with closed windows. 
  2. DO NOT let your children play outside for long hours when it is hot and without keeping an eye on them. Have them rest every 30 minutes when exercising or playing outside. Exercising or playing in high temperatures can lead to dehydration and serious consequences quickly.   

DOs for pregnant women

  1. Schedule medical visits and any tasks for when it is less hot in the day to prevent exposure to yourself and your unborn baby. 
  2. Sleep in cooler areas, such as on the lower floors of the building, when possible.   

Donts for pregnant women

  1. Please DO NOT engage in excessive activities when it is hot outside. 
  2. DO NOT go outside when it’s really hot. Try to avoid going out if it is over 40 °C/104 °F. 
  3. DO NOT overwork yourself. Rest when possible and share workloads with others. 
  4. DO NOT exercise when you’re low on rest or water. Pregnant women can exercise with low or moderate intensity as long as they feel comfortable and are hydrating and resting properly.​   

Signs and symptoms of heat stroke

Severe symptoms of heat stroke require urgent care. Suppose a family member is presenting any of the severe symptoms below. In that case, you should call for an ambulance or arrange for another form of transport to a health facility immediately.

Trust your instincts, and don’t hesitate to call for medical assistance.   

Mild Symptoms of heat-related illness (treatable with telemedicine)

  • Dry lips/sticky mouth
  • Excessive thirst
  • Excessive sweating
  • Weakness /dizziness
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Small blisters/rashes
  • Heat rashes
  • Mild fever
  • Nosebleeds
  • Cramps, usually in the arms and legs                                                                                                                           

Severe symptoms of heat-related illnesses– take to the hospital immediately

  • Confusion/not responding clearly /seizures/coma/not waking up (MOST SEVERE)
  • Very high body temperature for longer than 2 hours (40 °C/104 °F)
  • Fainting
  • No urine in more than 8 hours or dark urine
  • Rapid heartbeat and breathing
  • No sweating (but the skin may be wet). It’s possible

Treating heat stroke in emergencies

1. Cool and rush to a health facility if severe

Suppose a family member is experiencing severe symptoms of heat-related illnesses. In that case, it is important to cool first and transport second.  

Help the person sit or lie down in a cool, shaded area with good ventilation. Close curtains to create more shade. Turn on a fan or air conditioner if available. Apply wet towels to the skin at the head, neck, armpits, and groin. 

For infants and children, remove the outer layers of clothing, and for pregnant women, have them remove excess layers of clothing in a private area if possible. Have them sleep on their left side or leaning to the left.

If the person is unconscious or vomiting, lay them on their side until transport to the health facility arrives. 

If there are no severe symptoms, then treat at home and continue to Step 2: temperature reduction.

2. Reduce temperature

Move the person into a cool area if you still need to do so. Close curtains to create more shade. Turn on a fan or air conditioner if available.

Apply wet towels or cool water to the body, particularly at the head, neck, armpits, and groin. Keep changing the towels or dipping them in cool water every few minutes to provide cool water for the body. If available, use a fan and a misting spray to spray lukewarm water onto the body and dry it off with the fan running at the same time. Place ice or a wet towel on the neck, armpits, or groin with the fan running as well. Help air the body manually if no fan is available.   

Hands and feet can be put into containers of cool water to help cool off the body faster. Older children and adults can be immersed in cool (but NOT ice cold) water or a cold shower if available. 

DO NOT immerse infants and young children in very cold water.  

DO NOT point the fan at the face, especially infants. 

DO NOT give paracetamol/acetaminophen without advice from your health provider.

Continue to Step 3: Rehydrate.

3. Rehydrate

For infants under six months, breastfeed to rehydrate the infant. Encourage the mother also to drink more water, especially if breastfeeding. However, for older infants and children, give them water in small amounts to help them become used to it. 

If the child has released a lot of sweat or is sweating a lot, add some Oral Rehydration Salt (ORS) to the water for the child. Carefully follow the directions on the packet. If there are no directions, use the following guidance: 

  • A child under the age of two years needs at least 1/4 to 1/2 of a large (250 ml) cup of the ORS drink.
  • A child aged two years or older needs at least 1/2 to 1 whole large (250 ml) cup of the ORS drink.

If no premade ORS is available, dissolve six level teaspoons of sugar and 1/2 level teaspoon of salt in 1 litre of clean water.  

For older children and pregnant women, add ORS to water if excessively sweating. They should drink 100 ml of ORS every 5 minutes until they feel better.


As temperatures soar globally, understanding the risks of heat waves and prioritizing safety and awareness is important, especially for vulnerable groups like infants, children, and pregnant women. By understanding the risks associated with extreme heat and taking proactive measures, we can protect ourselves and our loved ones. Whether it’s staying hydrated, seeking shade, or knowing when to seek medical assistance, simple actions can make a big difference in staying safe during hot weather. 



Post Comments:

Post a comment