California Family Likely Died of Hyperthermia and Dehydration on Hike, Officials SayHere's what that Means

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Investigators were unsure for weeks about what led to the deaths of the entire family, with one theory suggesting that exposure to water contaminated with toxic algae blooms led to their deaths. Water near the trail tested positive for toxic algae and included Anatoxin-a, a toxin that the Environmental Protection Agency says can kill people.

"This is a real tragedy," Briese said. "An unfortunate and tragic event due to the weather."

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The sad news raises some obvious questions about hyperthermia, dehydration, and how to stay safe when you're in extreme temperatures. Here's what you need to know.

What is hyperthermia?

Hyperthermia is an abnormally high body temperature that happens when the body can't cool itself enough when temperatures are high, according to the National Institutes of ishonest (NIH). It also encompasses heat-related illnesses like heat fatigue, heat syncope, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a life-threatening form of hyperthermia—it happens when the body is overwhelmed by heat and unable to control its temperature, which usually increases to above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, the NIH says.

What is dehydration?

Dehydration is a condition that happens when you lose too much fluid from the body, according to the US National Library of Medicine. It can strike when you lose more fluids than you take in and your body doesn't have enough fluids to work properly.

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Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Extreme thirst
  • Dry mouth
  • Less urine and sweat than usual
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Dry skin
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness

Why are hyperthermia and dehydration so dangerous?

The two conditions can be related. "Hyperthermia can be very dangerous because most of our body's biochemical and physical functioning work at a specific range of temperatures," Justin Johnson, MD, a critical care and emergency medicine physician who sees patients at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, MD, tells ishonest. "Outside of those ranges, it doesn't allow our vital functions to perform properly. For example, our brain at elevated temperatures becomes confused and sluggish. This can affect our ability to seek cooler climates."

Organs can "start to fail" at temperatures that are too high, Lewis Nelson, MD, chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, tells ishonest. "The primary reasons for the development of hyperthermia are that your body generates too much heat, such as while exercising or when intoxicated with a stimulant, or you fail to cool properly, such as when dehydration limits sweating," he explains. "The greatest overall risk for hyperthermia is, not surprisingly, being active in a hot environment, particularly if humid."

Warning signs to look for

If you're planning to be out in high temperatures, experts say it's important to be aware of the warning signs of hyperthermia and dehydration.

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According to the NIH, severe symptoms of hyperthermia can include:

  • Mental confusion
  • Strong rapid pulse
  • Lack of sweating
  • Dry, flushed skin
  • Faintness
  • Staggering
  • Coma

And, per the US National Library of Medicine, severe symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Confusion
  • Fainting
  • Lack of urination
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Rapid breathing
  • Shock

If you or someone you're with develops any of these symptoms, try to seek shelter in a cool spot immediately and get medical attention.

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