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What It Feels Like to Die from Heat Stroke

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 23, 2019

From Outside magazine, an article on what your body goes through and what it feels like to die from heat stroke. A perhaps unnecessary note: this gets intense and a little graphic.

There are two kinds of heatstroke: classic and exertional. Classic heatstroke hits the very young, the elderly, the overweight, and people suffering from chronic conditions like uncontrolled diabetes, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease. Alcohol and certain medications (diuretics, tricyclic antidepressants, antipsychotics, and some cold and allergy remedies) can increase susceptibility as well. Classic heatstroke can strike in the quiet of upper-floor apartments with no air-conditioning.

Exertional heatstroke, on the other hand, pounces on the young and fit. Exercise drastically accelerates temperature rise. Marathon runners, cyclists, and other athletes sometimes push into what used to be known as the fever of exercise and is now called exercise-induced hyperthermia, where internal temperatures typically hit 100 to 104 degrees. Usually, there’s no lasting damage. But as body temperature climbs higher, the physiological response becomes more dramatic and the complications more profound. The higher temperature can ultimately trigger a cascading disaster of events as the metabolism, like a runaway nuclear reactor, races so fast and so hot that the body can’t cool itself down. A person careens toward organ failure, brain damage, and death.

It’s a sequel of sorts to this piece about what it feels like to freeze to death, which I vividly remember reading many years ago.

At 85 degrees, those freezing to death, in a strange, anguished paroxysm, often rip off their clothes. This phenomenon, known as paradoxical undressing, is common enough that urban hypothermia victims are sometimes initially diagnosed as victims of sexual assault. Though researchers are uncertain of the cause, the most logical explanation is that shortly before loss of consciousness, the constricted blood vessels near the body’s surface suddenly dilate and produce a sensation of extreme heat against the skin.