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Heat and Mental Illness

August, 2007

The mercury's rising across the country, and with the rising temperature comes increased risk of a potentially fatal illness: heat stroke.

But, did you know that mental illness and some medications used to treat mental illnesses actually increase the risk for heat stroke?

Heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to properly cool itself. Normally, the human body will regulate temperature by sweating, but heat stroke impairs the body's ability to do this. If heat stroke is not treated immediately, it can cause permanent disability and even death.

Disturbingly, individuals with mental illness may be particularly susceptible to heat stroke. Certain medications, including anti-psychotics and anti-cholinergics, are known to increase the risk for heat stroke because they inhibit the body's ability to regulate its temperature.

Additionally, people with mental illnesses who live in low-income housing without air conditioning are also at an increased risk for heat stroke. This combination can be dangerous; during a 1999 heat wave in Cincinnati, Ohio, almost half of the 18 heat-related deaths were individuals with a mental illness.

To help protect yourself or a loved one from the dangers of heat stroke, take a look at our list of do’s and don’ts for the hot summer days ahead.


  • Educate yourself about the symptoms of heat stroke, such as:

  • An extremely high body temperature (above 103 degrees Fahrenheit)
  • Red, hot and dry skin (no sweating)
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Stay indoors and use air conditioning if possible.  If your home does not have air conditioning, go to a place that does such as a mall or public library.  Even a few hours spent in air conditioning per day can reduce the risk of heat stroke.  You can also call your local health department to see if there are any heat-relief shelters nearby.
  • Drink more fluids and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink.  Also, adjust your diet to include cold servings and foods that are rich in water, such as fruit and salad.
  • Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing
  • Monitor loved ones and neighbors during a heat wave for signs of heat stroke 
  • Immediately seek medical attention if someone shows signs and symptoms of heat stroke


  • Exercise vigorously outdoors.  If you have to be outdoors, drink plenty of fluids, rest frequently in shaded areas, and limit your activity to morning and evening hours.
  • Drink liquids that contain caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar -- these can cause you to lose more body fluid
  • Depend on electric fans to cool you once the temperatures hit the high 90’s.  Taking a cool shower or bath or going to an air-conditioned place is a much safer way to cool off. 
  • Leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle

For more information about heat stroke, visit the Center for Disease Control’s Web site or talk to your physician about the risks of some psychiatric medications and heat stroke.


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