Warm-summer days, lots of sun, and outdoor activities can be fun. But when the temperature rises, so do cases of heat stroke and heat exhaustion. A day at the beach, working outside, or confined indoors without a fan or air conditioning on a hot day could be dangerous.
- An estimated 28,000 people a year are hospitalized for heat stroke and heat exhaustion.1
- About 1,300 deaths per year are caused by heat-related illnesses.1
Ever experienced heat stroke and heat exhaustion, or know someone who has? In the beginning, it might not seem like a big deal. But what happens when “just cool off,” “drink some water,” or “sit in the shade,” isn’t enough or too little too late?
That carefree summer day could change in an instant, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Why? Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are largely preventable. In this article, you will learn:
- How to spot the warning signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses.
- The difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion.
- Tips to prevent heat-related illnesses.
- How to treat heat stroke and heat exhaustion. (Sometimes it’s a health problem that starts suddenly and needs care right away.)
Ready to enjoy summer with a little extra info about how to prevent and treat heat-related illnesses to stay safe? Here’s what you need to know.
What Is heat exhaustion?
Heat exhaustion occurs when you’re exposed to high temperatures. The first sign is usually excessive sweating, then salt and water levels drop dangerously low. Without a way to cool off, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal.
Know the warning signs of heat exhaustion
Playing sports or working outside on a hot day? Watch for signs of heat exhaustion in yourself and those around you. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Excessive thirst
- Heavy sweating
- Cold, clammy skin
- Dark-colored urine or very little urine
- Elevated body temperature
7 tips to treat heat exhaustion
Taking action to treat heat exhaustion as soon as possible is important. Why? Symptoms could get worse and lead to heat stroke. Don’t let that happen. Follow these seven tips to treat heat exhaustion:
- Get out of the heat. If you suspect heat exhaustion, get out of the heat. An air-conditioned area is ideal. A fan can help. If those aren’t at hand, look for a shady spot under a tree or next to a building.
- Remove any needless clothing, such as shoes, socks, hats or extra layers.
- Try to lower your body temperature. Use a fan. Douse the face and head with cool water from a hose or water bottles. Use a cool compress, or take a cool shower, bath or sponge bath.
- Drink water, sports drinks, or other fluids, the colder, the better. Stay away from alcohol or caffeine.
- If symptoms get worse or don’t improve within 15 minutes, seek medical aid right away.
- If symptoms subside, you should still rest for the rest of the day.
- If you’re left with a minor headache and no other symptoms, take an over-the-counter pain reliever.
What is heat stroke?
Heatstroke comes in two forms.
- Classical heat stroke. You’re in hot weather. Your body temperature keeps rising. You’re sweating a lot, but it’s still not enough to lower your body temperature.
- Exertional heat stroke. It’s similar to classical heat stroke. But it’s triggered by exercise or strenuous physical activity in hot weather. Research shows this type of heat stroke affects thousands of athletes practicing on hot days each year. It’s also among the top three causes of athlete deaths.5
Sweating is a natural response your body uses to regulate body temperature. But in hot conditions, sweating may not be enough, and it could lead to heat stroke.
The danger zone. When heat stroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heat stroke can cause death or disability if emergency care is not given.
Know the warning signs of heat stroke
How can you tell the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion? Their symptoms can overlap. While heat exhaustion typically occurs before a heat stroke, heat stroke can also happen without warning. Signs of heatstroke include:
- Body temperature of 104°F or higher
- Nausea or vomiting
- Confusion or changes in behavior
- Fainting or loss of consciousness
- Fast, weak pulse
- Shallow, quick breathing or hyperventilating
- Drop in sweat production
- Warm, dry, flushed skin (note that heavy sweating is still a possibility)
- Throbbing headache
- Convulsions or seizure
Act fast: heat stroke is a medical emergency
With heat exhaustion, you’ve got time on your side to cool off with a fan, air conditioning, ice, cold water and shade. Heat stroke is a medical emergency. You need to act fast to prevent damage to the body and brain and even death.
Follow these steps to treat heat stroke:
- Call 911 for emergency medical care as soon as possible.
- Stay with the person until emergency medical services arrive.
- Move the person to a shaded, cool area and remove outer clothing.
- Cool the person as soon as possible with cold water or ice bath if possible. You could also wet the skin, place cold wet cloths on the skin or soak clothing in cool water.
- Circulate the air around the person to speed cooling.
- Place cold wet cloths or ice on head, neck, armpits and groin. Or soak the clothing with cool water.
- If the person is conscious, help them take small sips of water.
Note: In extreme cases, emergency medical care may not arrive quickly.
- Watch for signs of vomiting to prevent choking.
- If the person has a seizure, help move them lower to the ground and clear the area to avoid injuries.
- If the person stops breathing, begin Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
5 tests for heat-related illnesses
Visual signs are the most common method used to identify heat stroke and heat exhaustion. But there are tests a doctor may recommend to confirm a diagnosis or measure potential organ damage caused by heat stroke. These include:
- Rectal temperature. It’s the most accurate way to measure core body temperature.
- Blood test. A blood test can show low levels of sodium or potassium and other biomarkers of damage to the body.
- Urine test. It’s an effective way to measure kidney function, which can be affected by heat-related illnesses.
- Muscle function tests. These tests check for muscle function and tissue damage caused by heat stroke.
- X-rays and imaging tests. These tests can check the heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and brain for damage caused by heat stroke.
Risk factors for heat stroke and heat exhaustion
Watch out for hot weather to prevent heat stroke and heat exhaustion. That makes sense, right? Here are a few more things to know that could raise your chance for heat-related illnesses:
- A heat index of 91°F or higher means you should take precautions to stay cool. The heat index is a measure of humidity and temperature. When both are high, so are the risks for heat-related illnesses.
- Sudden heat waves or traveling to a warmer area than you’re used to will raise the chance of heat-related illness.
- People over the age of 65 and children under 4 have a higher chance of suffering heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
- Medications such as diuretics, antihistamines, beta blockers, tranquilizers, and antipsychotics may inhibit your body’s ability to stay hydrated and regulate its temperature.
- Certain illegal drugs, such as cocaine and amphetamines, can raise the body’s core temperature.
- Alcohol consumption can add to dehydration and temperature regulation problems.
- Engaging in strenuous activity when it’s hot outside is a major risk factor.
- Wearing too much clothing, or tight-fitting clothing, can inhibit sweat evaporation and body temperature regulation.
How to prevent heat stroke and heat exhaustion
Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are largely preventable. Want to enjoy a cooler, carefree summer? Here are some things to keep in mind during hot weather:
- Pay attention to the weather. On hot days, limit time outdoors during the hottest part of the day. Stay inside where it’s cooler with the help of air conditioning or a fan. If you’re outside, stay in the shade as much as you can.
- Limit strenuous activity when it’s hot. If you can’t, take plenty of breaks in the shade or air conditioning. Drink extra fluids to stay hydrated.
- Avoid alcohol or other recreational drugs that can inhibit body temperature regulation.
- Talk to your doctor about medications if you take them. Ask specifically whether hot weather will affect you.
- Wear sunscreen and protect yourself from the sun. Sunburn can make it difficult for your body to cool down when it needs to.
- Wear light-colored, lightweight, loose-fitting clothing when spending time in the heat.
- If there is a sudden spike in temperature or you travel to a warmer climate, let your body get acclimated to the heat before spending too much time in it.
If you keep these things in mind, you can enjoy hot-summer days, lots of sun, and outdoor activities, and do it safely.