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Treating Heat Stroke with a Cold Bath

You can treat heat stroke with a TACO.
You can treat heat stroke with a TACO, Tarp
Assisted COoling.

If you have heat stroke, a TACO might save your life; here's how.

Every year there are approximately 404 heat-related deaths in America. 72% of those deaths were people who were exposed to excessive heat and might not have been aware enough about what was happening to spot the symptoms.

The high school football player doing drills in the afternoon. The long-distance runner preparing for a marathon. A cyclist out to log a few miles during lunch. Only this time, they may not be as prepared as before. All those are called exertional heat strokes, because it's a combination of high heat and overly vigorous exercise that brings it on.

YOUR FIRST ACTION SHOULD BE TO CALL 911 or Local Emergency Responders! Then follow the information below to begin lifesaving help until trained medical responders arrive.

The underlying triggers that make one day worse than others vary. Excess alcohol the night before, starting out a little dehydrated, slightly hotter than normal temperatures or the simple act of someone pushing themselves a little more vigorously than in the past. Suddenly things take a turn for the worse.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • A body temperature greater than 103°F (39.4°C)
  • Red, hot, and dry skin (no sweating)
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Altered mental status
  • Slurred speech
  • Unconsciousness (Coma)
  • Seizures

Once heat stroke symptoms start, steps must be taken to reduce the core body temperature. In as little as 30 minutes, very high body temperature can damage the brain or other vital organs. As it becomes more severe, the problem progresses to multiple organ system failure and eventually death.

In the past, treatments included rather straightforward solutions. Get into a cooler area with adequate airflow. Breeze moving over damp skin helps reduce temperature through evaporative cooling. You should also drink cold water and start eating ice. Crushed ice can act as a heat sink in the body and helps lower core body temperatures.

In more advanced cases, the person experiencing heatstroke may be unable to respond, so the next step was cool water immersion. You put them in a tub of cold water to slowly lower the body temperature. But that may mean you have to get them in a car, to a hospital and into that prepared tub. Now there's something faster. Instead of taking the time to bring them to a tub, you can bring a tub to them.

In an experiment carried out at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, researchers had participants lie down on a tarp. Then volunteers lifted the edges of the tarp to form a TACO shape. (Tarp Assisted Cooling) Finally, researchers poured 35 degrees Fahrenheit water (2.1 degrees C) over each participant.

The Taco Formation

The body temperature of the participants dropped an average of .25 degrees Fahrenheit every minute. In just 20 minutes someone whose body temperature was in the dangerous range of 104 degrees Fahrenheit, dropped down to a near-normal 99 degrees Fahrenheit.

The senior author of the experiment Brendon McDermott said, “Exertional heat stroke is potentially fatal... It’s probably not 100 percent preventable, but with effective recognition and treatment it’s 100 percent survivable and TACO represents one method that can be used as effective treatment for that individual.”

Now you probably won't have several gallons of 35 degrees Fahrenheit water sitting around, but you might have a cooler with ice in it. Mix some water with the ice and it'll be close enough to do the job. It doesn't have to be freshwater, after all, you're not drinking it. Lake, river or ocean water over ice can also do the trick.

If you're overseeing a sporting event, get a small portable tub or tarp to keep on standby. Make sure you've got access to about 30 to 40 gallons of water and ice. A cooler full of ice and a water hose would work fine. Then if you see a participant start to exhibit signs of heat stroke, you can treat them immediately before any long-term damage can happen.


There are a couple of myths surrounding cold-water immersion that need to be removed. The first is that it will cause the heart to go into shock. The second is that it will cause the heat to rush to the center of the body and heat the person up from the inside. BOTH ARE FALSE.

Immerse as much of the body as possible. Make sure there's plenty of ice to keep it cold. Circulate the water to make sure it's pulling the heat out. The result is a nearly 100% survival rate if applied within 30 minutes of heat stroke setting in.

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