Do you know the signs of heatstroke? Learn how to recognize + respond

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Any number of outdoor activities can put you at risk. Photo via @awcreativeut on Unsplash

We joke about it all the time here in the South, but as we get into the hottest weeks of the year, heatstroke is very real—and very dangerous. A Birmingham physician walked us through the symptoms + how to respond. Check it out!

Long, Hot Summer

However you’re spending your time outside this summer, make sure you’re doing it safely! Photo via Jacob Blankenship for Bham Now

I know I love my air conditioning, but in 2020, many of us are spending more and more time in the Great Outdoors. Getting fresh air and exercise is incredibly beneficial whether you’re still working from home or not.

As temperatures rise here in Birmingham, so does the risk of heatstroke. It’s more serious than I realized. Knowing how to respond can save lives. Here’s who’s most at risk:

  • Children
  • People on certain medications like beta blockers
  • Older adults
  • People that are doing illicit drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, ecstasy, etc
  • People who use caffeine and alcohol in excess

We caught up with a local expert who sees and treats all kinds of emergencies. Bruce Burns, M.D., is the chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Princeton Baptist Medical Center. Here’s what he had to say.

The Symptoms

We’re lucky to have so many awesome parks to enjoy here in Birmingham. Photo via Jacob Blankenship for Bham Now

There are several stages of heat-related illness, all of which pose different threats and require different responses.


When people start getting overheated, you may begin to experience symptoms like cramping. That’s the first sign you’re getting into a dangerous zone.

“With heat cramps you stop what you’re doing, meaning if you’re doing any exercise or work, stop it.

You also need to hydrate yourself. The best thing there is a commercial sports drink—doesn’t matter which one. Or water, if you don’t have a sports drink.”

Dr. Bruce Burns, Princeton Baptist Dept. of Emergency Medicine, Chairman

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is the next phase.

“This happens when the body is producing heat and it’s able to get rid of that heat, but it spends a lot of energy doing it.”

Dr. Bruce Burns, Princeton Baptist Dept. of Emergency Medicine, Chairman

Ever been outside working or exercising in the summertime and started to feel fatigued, hot or flushed? That’s the beginning of heat exhaustion. Those early symptoms are signs that your body has reached its limit, and something more serious will happen if you don’t cool down.


This stage is when neurological symptoms begin, hence the term, “stroke.” This occurs when you can no longer regulate your body’s temperature—you’ve gone past the body’s limits to cool itself.

“When you do that, the body’s temperature starts to rise rapidly. When it gets above 104 degrees, you’re at risk for heatstroke.”

Dr. Bruce Burns, Princeton Baptist Dept. of Emergency Medicine, Chairman

How to Respond

Snowballs recommended, but not required. Photo via Brookwood Baptist Health

This is the part that can be the difference in getting a little too hot and having to go inside for a while or getting seriously overheated and ending up in the hospital with life-threatening symptoms.

At Home

If you or someone around you is in the first two stages (overheating or heat exhaustion), you can generally be treated at home and experience no lasting impact, as long as you can get your temperature down quickly.

The best ways to do this are to get out of the heat as much as possible (inside or in the shade) and work on cooling off quickly. If you’ve progressed into heat exhaustion or heatstroke, Dr. Burns recommends filling a tub or a small kiddie pool with ice water and submerging your body.

You also need to be rehydrating with sports drinks or with water. If you’re in a public place where you can’t completely submerge the body in ice water, use ice packs on the skin or anything cold you can access.

When to Seek Medical Attention

If an overheated person starts to exhibit any form of neurological symptoms, call 911 right away. This is vital for survival. These symptoms can be as simple as confusion or feeling a little jittery, or they can be as serious as having a seizure.

“Once there are neurological symptoms involved, that becomes an emergency. The thing you have to do is cool that person down rapidly.

Within 30 minutes, you have to get their temperature from above 104 to below 102. If you can do that, most people will survive.”

Dr. Bruce Burns, Princeton Baptist Dept. of Emergency Medicine, Chairman

Better to be safe than sorry—if you or someone around you is overheated and seems confused, disoriented or jittery, begin cooling down immediately and find an ER. Speaking of ERs, we know 2020 has made people wary of going to the hospital unless absolutely necessary.

In the case of illnesses like heatstroke, stroke, heart attacks, etc—the risk is much too great to avoid seeking medical attention. Facilities within the Brookwood Baptist Health system have measures in place to keep you as safe as possible while they treat you.

The Lesson

Lace up, get outside, but stay cool. Photo via @areksan on Unsplash

There’s one key takeaway that Dr. Burns focused on:

“The big thing is prevention, prevention, prevention.

If we don’t prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke, that’s when we get in trouble.”

Dr. Bruce Burns, Princeton Baptist Dept. of Emergency Medicine, Chairman

How do you follow his advice? If you’re spending time outside, whether at work or in your free time, be aware of your symptoms and your temperature. If you start to cramp or feel flushed and fatigued, stop what you’re doing and cool off.

As we mentioned earlier, extremes of age are at a higher risk. If you’re going for a walk in the park with an elderly parent, keep a close eye on them and stay indoors during the hottest parts of the day. If you have or spend time with children, never lock them in the car, even if you’re just running inside for a split second. Same goes for pets!

Know the signs, know the response, and stay safe, Bham. Want to learn more about healthy living? Check out these awesome (and free!) resources.

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Beth Cunningham
A Birmingham transplant who can usually be found hitting a new hiking trail or restaurant opening when she's not writing stories and snapping photos for Bham Now.
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