When the summer season comes around, we tend to spend the majority of our time outside, under the sweltering sun. As many parts of the world experience extreme heat waves, it is more important than ever to understand the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke—and what to do if you or someone around you is experiencing one.
Heat exhaustion is, when left untreated, a precursor to heat stroke, which is considered a major medical emergency. When your body loses a vast amount of salt and water—usually through sweating—heat exhaustion occurs. Understandably, summer is the time of year when people suffer from heat exhaustion most frequently, due in no small part to the higher external temperatures and consistent humidity.
When your body temperature reaches 103°F (approximately 39°C), the risk of suffering a heat stroke spikes drastically. Heat stroke occurs the moment your body is no longer able to regulate its internal temperature, and that 103°F can quickly rise to 106°F or higher. Contributing factors to heat stroke include a rapid surge in body temperature, ineffective sweating, and an overall inability to cool down.
Your body uses sweat as a natural cooling mechanism, though in instances of heat exhaustion, it may struggle to produce enough perspiration to effectively regulate your internal temperature. This commonly occurs during moments of overexertion or persistent physical exertion in warm environments.
Other common causes include:
- Wearing heavy, tight-fitting clothes
- Alcohol consumption
- Age — Infants, young children, and people 65 years of age or older are at increased risk due to their bodies’ inability to effectively regulate internal temperature. Additionally, it is easier for these individuals to suffer from dehydration in warm environments.
- Weight — People who are obese are more likely to suffer from heat exhaustion due to their bodies’ natural tendency to retain heat; similarly, their bodies often struggle to effectively regulate their internal temperatures.
- Overexertion — Whether someone is overworking themselves at a physically intensive job or merely exercising too much during their daily routine, extreme physical exertion can easily lead to heat exhaustion, especially when coupled with insufficient water intake.
- Pre-existing Illness — People who are already physically ill, particularly those suffering from heart disease or high blood pressure, are more susceptible to the heat. Similarly, people who take certain medications for conditions such as depression, insomnia, or blood circulation are also at higher risk.
- Traveling Between Biomes — People who are accustomed to a generally cold climate are significantly more likely to develop heat exhaustion upon moving to a location that is far warmer overall.
1. Hydrate (water or sports drink)
1. Call 911 immediately
2. Move to a cooler location
2. Move to a cooler location
3. Lay down and rest
3. Use cold compresses
4. If conscious, sip water periodically
4. Remove tight clothes/extra layers
5. Use cold compresses, cool shower
5. Use a cooling blanket
6. If vomiting persists, seek medical help
6. IV fluids ( if hospitalized)
7. Remove tight clothes/extra layers
If heat exhaustion persists for an extended period of time, heat stroke will occur. In moments of overexertion or hot weather, heat stroke can develop quickly, resulting in damage to the brain, heart, liver, and kidneys. This is due to hyperthermia; even a single episode can cause prolonged or permanent neurological and/or cognitive dysfunction. Severe cases of heat stroke can lead to death, making it crucial to act the moment heat exhaustion symptoms appear.
- Wear light, loose-fitting clothes
- Drink water regularly—especially during hot weather or moments of exertion
- Never leave your child or pet in a parked car
- Limit outdoor activities on hot days; this includes avoiding intense exercise and prolonged physical exertion
- If you begin to experience mild symptoms of heat exhaustion, move to an airconditioned place or a shaded area immediately
- If you are unaccustomed to a certain heat level, limit your time outside until your body has acclimated
Your health, age, and the swiftness with which your body manages to cool off are all factors that determine how long it will take for you to recover from a heat illness. Listen to your body. Heat-related illnesses can be extremely dangerous—and even fatal. By remaining aware and remembering the signs and symptoms, you can protect yourself and your loved ones.
If you notice someone exhibiting symptoms of heat exhaustion, help them move to a cool location out of direct sunlight and ensure they hydrate immediately. If symptoms worsen, seek medical attention—do not wait for heat stroke symptoms to occur. Remember: if someone has developed heat stroke, you cannot handle it yourself. Call 911 immediately if you suspect that you or someone near you is experiencing a heat stroke.