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The symptoms and ways to treat heatstroke

In partnership with Dr Hamish Black

Everything you need to know about prevention & treatment

Middle aged sweating while riding his bike in summer
Middle aged sweating while riding his bike in summer

During the hot and humid summer months, we are more susceptible to heatstroke. While this condition can be life-threatening, it can generally be prevented by taking simple measures.  

At nib, we consider ourselves your health partner, working with the experts to give you the tips and tricks to live your healthiest life yet. So, we spoke with nib Medical Advisor, Dr Hamish Black, to find out everything you need to know about preventing heatstroke, spotting its symptoms and treating it.  

What is heatstroke? 

Heatstroke is a heat-related illness that occurs when our body temperature rises from the normal 37C to above 40C. It is considered a medical emergency because first aid is urgently required to lower body temperature before it leads to organ damage or death. Milder heat-related illnesses such as dehydration and heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke if they’re not treated quickly and effectively. 

 What causes heatstroke? 

 “Heatstroke happens in hot and humid environments, especially when you’re active or doing strenuous exercise,” says Hamish. 

Several factors can contribute to heatstroke, including: 

  • Dehydration due to work, exercise, nausea and vomiting, excessive alcohol intake, or certain medications or illicit drugs 

  • Crowded environments 

  • Poor airflow 

  • Sun exposure 

  • Bushfires 

 “There are some people who are more prone to heatstroke, especially those with no acclimatisation, and extra precaution is needed,” says Hamish. 

Woman in her 50s working outside in the mines in rural Australia

 People who are at higher risk of heatstroke include: 

  •  Babies and young children 

  • People over 65 years old 

  • Pregnant women and breastfeeding mothers 

  • People who are overweight or have low physical fitness  

  • People with chronic health conditions, such as heart disease and diabetes

  • People who are dehydrated due to illness or infection 

  • People who take certain medications that make them sweat less 

  • People with limited mobility or cognitive impairments 

  • People who are unhoused or don’t have air conditioning 

 How to prevent heatstroke 

The good news is that heatstroke can be prevented by following a few simple measures: 

  •  Drink plenty of water even if you don’t feel thirsty, and avoid alcoholic or sugary drinks 

  • Avoid direct sunlight and strenuous activity in hot and humid weather 

  • If possible, stay inside during the hottest part of the day 

  • Slip, slop, slap- Wear sunscreen, lightweight cotton clothing and a hat when outdoors 

  • Keep your house cool by closing curtains

    and turning on fans or air conditioning 

  • Keep your body temperature down by applying cool compresses to your skin or taking cool showers 

  • Ensure children, pets and at-risk family members stay cool and hydrated

  • Never leave children, pets or older people alone in the car 

Spotting the symptoms of heatstroke

Symptoms of heatstroke may include: 

  •  Body temperature above 40C 

  • Red, hot and dry skin (no sweating) 

  • Heat rash 

  • Dry and swollen tongue 

  • Rapid pulse 

  • Fast breathing 

  • Headache 

  • Dizziness 

  • Nausea and vomiting 

  • Extreme thirst 

  • Confusion or strange behaviour 

  • Slurred speech 

  • Lack of coordination 

  • Muscle cramps 

  • Loss of consciousness 

  • Seizures  

How to treat heatstroke 

“The initial treatment [for heat exhaustion] is to rest in a cooler environment such as the shade with cooling through evaporation from tepid water spray,” says Hamish. “Satisfy thirst with cool water. If there is any confusion or other neurological symptoms such as difficulties walking, call 000 immediately.” 

 If the person suffering from heatstroke is unconscious, place them on their side with their mouth open and their chin up while you wait for the ambulance. Perform CPR if there is no pulse or breathing. Never administer paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin to someone suffering from heatstroke. 

Please note: The tips throughout this article serve as broad information and should not replace any advice you have been given by your medical practitioner.  

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black

In partnership with

Dr Hamish Black

Dr Hamish Black has been a medical practitioner for more than 25 years. In addition to his role as nib group medical advisor, he still spends two days a week practising as a GP. He has spent many years working in emergency departments and in rural Australia, including a stint with the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Hamish also loves karaoke and dancing (though not that well at either, he says!), with Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry being his karaoke favourite.