Summer this year is probably long-awaited after most Americans had been cooped up at home to manage the pandemic. But there’s another threat facing a lot of people these days: heatwaves.
Heat-related illnesses are not uncommon, and they can be deadly. On average, at least 600 people will die of heatstroke every year. Compare that to fewer than 50 deaths reported because of hurricanes between 2016 and 2019. One is likely to pass away from being exposed to excessive heat than being hit by lightning.
And contrary to popular belief, being at home doesn’t make one immune to the effects of a heatwave. In 2003, a staggering 14,000+ people in France died because of hyperthermia (or excessive body temperature).
Most were elderly, living alone in buildings with no proper air conditioning. This explains why homeowners should not take air conditioner problems lightly, particularly in the summer.
If they are not working well, they have to call an expert in residential electrical services. Doing this may have another benefit: it may make the air conditioner function more efficiently, which can hopefully lower cooling costs.
But what exactly happens during a heatwave? Why do people die of heatstroke, and how does this condition affect the body’s different organs?
When the Body Cannot Cope
One of the body’s goals is to achieve homeostasis or balance through various mechanisms like thermoregulation (regulation of body temperature). The command center for this is the hypothalamus in the brain.
Many liken the hypothalamus to a thermostat. First, it collects temperature data from various parts of the body, such as the skin. If it senses that the body temperature is falling, it forces the muscles to contract to generate more heat. It may also force someone to act upon it by perhaps grabbing a blanket. This is why a person shivers in the cold.
When the temperature rises, it needs to get rid of the excess heat. It sends messages to the sweat glands, so they produce sweat. Not only does this process help disperse heat, but it also leaves the skin feeling cool.
During thermoregulation, the body needs to maintain an ideal temperature of around 37 degrees Celsius or 98.5 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything lower or higher than that, the body will respond using the methods above.
The problem is when the body is exposed to excessive heat levels for a prolonged period, such as during summer. It may succeed to achieve balance in temperature, but at some point, it will eventually break down—it cannot cope anymore. These changes will, unfortunately, increase a person’s risk of developing heat stroke.
What Happens During Heat Stroke?
When the body reaches a temperature of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), the person is already a candidate for heatstroke. However, for it to become an official diagnosis, they need to show specific mental and physical manifestations:
- Pulsing heartbeat – The average heartbeat per minute is between 60 and 100. Endurance athletes may have a slower heart rate of 40. Heatstroke can cause way higher numbers per minute even when the person is at rest. Heat will dilate the blood vessels to allow more blood to flow, but this only forces the heart to pump harder to keep up.
- Brain damage – One of the devastating effects of heatstroke is brain damage. This occurs in two ways. One, the high body temperature will cause the blood-brain barrier to break down. It will then allow unwanted particles and pathogens to enter the brain, causing damage to the cells. Second, when the heart pumps hard, it will eventually become ineffective and stop working. This means the brain doesn’t receive the necessary nutrients and oxygen to function.
- Organ failure – To achieve homeostasis, some organs have to give. To meet the energy needs of the lungs and heart, other organs like the kidneys and the gut should become less active. However, when they remain in this state for a long time, it can lead to permanent organ damage.
How Soon Can It Happen?
One of the biggest issues with heat-related illnesses, particularly heatstroke, is how fast it can happen. Usually, it takes only around two hours before someone gets to the point of no return. If someone is engaged in strenuous activities, like exercising, it may even be quicker.
That’s why paying attention to body changes matter. If the body is still experiencing heat exhaustion (rapid heartbeat and excessive sweating), moving to a much cooler place like a home with a good-running air-conditioning unit can already prevent death.
People with heatstroke, though, require emergency services. If they can receive therapy at the right time, they may reduce their risk of dying by 10 percent.