Living and vacationing in climates with high heat and humidity make us vulnerable to heat related illnesses. Heat exhaustion is a precursor to heatstroke. Both are potentially life-threatening and require immediate medical care.
Heat exhaustion is a heat-related illness that can occur after you’ve been exposed to high temperatures, and it is often accompanied by dehydration.
There are two types of heat exhaustion:
- Water depletion. Signs include excessive thirst, weakness, headache, and loss of consciousness.
- Salt depletion. Signs include nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps, and dizziness.
What to Do If You Suspect Heat-Related Illness
Children and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness. Some of the simple precautions we can take are wearing sunscreen, wearing hats and lightweight clothes, staying in the shade, and the most important of them all is to drink plenty of fluids and stay hydrated. Limiting your exposure to the sun is particularly important. Strenuous exercise should be limited once heat alerts have been issued to prevent heat stroke, heat exhaustion, or heat cramps.
Heat exhaustion is one part of the spectrum of heat-related illnesses that begin with heat cramps, progressing to heat exhaustion, and finally to heat stroke. (Wedro 2019)
Heat Exhaustion vs Heat Stroke (Sun Stroke)
Knowing the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke is important to knowing if immediate emergency medical intervention is necessary.
Causes of heat exhaustion may include exposure to high temperatures, particularly when it is combined with high humidity and strenuous physical activity. Without prompt treatment, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, which is a life-threatening condition. Fortunately, heat exhaustion is preventable.
Cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat, heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, weak, rapid pulse, low blood pressure upon standing, muscle cramps, nausea, headache
What to do:
Move to a cool place, loosen your clothes, put cool, wet clothes on your body, or take a cool bath, sip water.
Get medical help right away if you are throwing up, your symptoms get worse, your symptoms last longer than 1 hour. (Felson 2020)
Heat stroke can kill or cause damage to the brain and other internal organs. Although heat stroke mainly affects people over age 50, it also takes a toll on healthy young athletes.
Heatstroke is caused by the failure of the thermostat in the brain which regulates the body temperature. Due to prolonged exposure to heat, the body becomes overheated. Heatstroke can cause unconsciousness within minutes of feeling unwell.
High body temperature (103°F or higher), hot, red, dry, or damp skin, fast, strong pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, or losing consciousness (passing out).
What to do:
Call 911 right away. Heat stroke is a medical emergency. Move the person to a cooler place and help lower the person’s temperature with cool cloths or a cool bath. Do not give the person anything to drink. (DerSarkissian 2018)
Felson, Sabrina. “Heat Exhaustion: Symptoms, Causes, Treatment, Prevention.” WebMD, WebMD, 15 Dec. 2018, www.webmd.com/fitness-exercise/heat-exhaustion.
Wedro, Benjamin. “Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke: Symptoms, Signs, Treatment.” MedicineNet, MedicineNet, 18 Oct. 2019, https://www.medicinenet.com/heat_exhaustion/article.htm.
DerSarkissian, Carol. “Heat Stroke (Sunstroke): Signs, Symptoms, First Aid, and Treatment.” WebMD, WebMD, 25 Nov. 2018, https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/heat-stroke-symptoms-and-treatment.