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What Is Hyperthermia? - Definition, Causes & Symptoms & Treatment

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Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Hyperthermia occurs when heat regulation mechanisms such as sweating fail to keep the body cool. Learn how to define hyperthermia, then explore its types, causes, symptoms, and treatments. Updated: 10/11/2021

A Little About Hyperthermia

Hyperthermia is a condition in which the body's temperature is higher than normal. (Remember, normal body temperature is 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.) You might think hyperthermia is synonymous with fever, but not quite. When you're sick, the body purposefully raises its temperature to try to fight the infection, and the temperature on the thermometer goes up. Hyperthermia is a little bit different; the body temperature rises, but it's not on purpose. Rather, the body's heating and cooling mechanisms become over-run, and the body cannot get rid of enough heat.

Keeping the body at an ideal temperature requires a lot of regulation. When you are too hot, you sweat so that the evaporative effects cool you. When you are too cold, you shake or shiver to try to keep blood moving and create heat. When this scale tips too far and your body becomes too hot, you suffer from hyperthermia. The opposite - the body temperature being below normal - is called hypothermia.

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Causes of Hyperthermia

Hyperthermia is caused from overexertion or extended periods of time spent in hot conditions. In rare cases, it may be caused by medication or a medical condition, but usually, the temperature is just too hot, and you're pushing yourself too hard.

Overexertion in hot weather frequently causes hyperthermia.

Emergency or accidental hyperthermia is not to be confused with hyperthermia treatments that are used sometimes as cancer therapy. These are different and performed in controlled settings. Additionally, there is an inherited condition called malignant hyperthermia that occurs in some people when they receive general anesthesia. This is also different from general hyperthermia.

Types and Symptoms of Hyperthermia

There are different stages of hyperthermia based on the severity of the symptoms and the body's temperature. Let's take a look at each of these, starting with the mildest form and increasing in severity from there.

  1. Heat syncope: This is characterized by sudden dizziness in hot weather. It's a warning sign that the body is becoming overheated and is a signal to hydrate, rest, and put your legs up if possible.
  2. Heat rash: The body physically manifests red bumps and the skin becomes itchy and irritated.
  3. Heat cramps: The muscles tighten in the stomach, arms, and legs as a result of elevated temperatures. At this point, it's time to drink water, rest, and try to cool off.
  4. Heat edema: The ankles and feet swell due to the body retaining fluids. Try to elevate the legs to relieve symptoms.
  5. Heat exhaustion: The body is failing to cool itself if it's progressed to heat exhaustion. This is a critical threshold because it can still intensify if you don't cool off. Symptoms include severe thirst, weakness, disorientation, clumsiness, heavy sweating, rapid pulse, and nausea.
  6. Heat stroke: This is the most severe level of hyperthermia and can be fatal. Heat stroke can cause fainting, confusion or other mental impairments, and irregular heart rate. The body stops sweating even though it is too warm, and the body temperature is above 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Symptoms are listed with each level of hyperthermia, but generally speaking, they include headaches, dizziness, confusion, sweating, fatigue, muscle cramps, weakness, vomiting, seizures, and nausea.

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