Heat Stroke vs. Heat Exhaustion: What You Need to Know When Temperatures Soar

A heat wave is on the way this weekend that will put more than 30 million people in the southwestern United States under severe heat warnings and could even break several temperature records. As temperatures soar across the country now and throughout the summer, there are real health risks that more Americans are aware of in the weeks and months to come: heat stroke or exhaustion from the heat.

Heatstroke and heat exhaustion are very serious illnesses that can lead to death. So whether you’re indoors without air conditioning or often outdoors for work or play, it’s important to know the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and what to do if it happens to you or to someone you are with.

Dr. Eric Adkins, an emergency physician at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center, explains the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion, the signs and symptoms to look for, and what you can do to prevent the disease below. related to the heat this summer.

Read also: Know the signs of heat stroke and what to do immediately if you overheat

Heat Stroke vs Heat Exhaustion

According to the Mayo Clinic, heat-related illnesses can occur under several different conditions. Heat stroke can occur if someone is exposed to hot or hot and humid conditions for prolonged periods, long enough to raise a person’s core body temperature to dangerous levels. All weather conditions with a heat index of 91 degrees or higher are considered a risk factor for heat-related illness, and keep in mind that humidity only adds to the intensity.

Heat stroke can also be triggered during physical activity or work in hot conditions. Factors such as dehydration, alcohol consumption, and wearing multiple layers of clothing can hasten the onset of the disease or make it more likely to occur.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion usually occur before heat stroke, but heat exhaustion can lead to stroke if not treated early enough. “The main difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion involves the nervous system in heat stroke. In heat stroke, patients develop confusion and altered levels of consciousness. Other examples may be seizures, severe headaches, or irritability,” says Dr. Adkins.


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Warning signs of heatstroke according to the CDC include:

  • High body temperature (103 or more)
  • Hot, red, dry or moist skin
  • Rapid and strong pulse
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Pass out or lose consciousness

If you think you or someone near you is suffering from heat stroke, you should call 911 immediately. While waiting for medical attention, it is important that you try to help the person cool down by moving them indoors or to a cooler place, or by lowering their body temperature with a cool bath or fresh clothes. The CDC says it’s important that you don’t give anything to drink to someone who might have heatstroke. It may seem counterintuitive, but you have to wait for medical responders to arrive first.

If you’re not sure if you or someone else has heat stroke, it’s best not to take any chances. “If in doubt, I recommend getting checked out to make sure their symptoms aren’t due to heat exposure or some other potential emergency,” says Dr. Adkins.

Warning signs of heat exhaustion, according to the CDC:

  • Profuse sweating
  • Cold, pale and clammy skin
  • Rapid and weak pulse
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Loss of consciousness or fainting

If someone is suffering from heat exhaustion, they should immediately try to cool down and apply cold cloths as needed or take a cool bath. They can drink small sips of water, but if the person vomits, they should call 911 or go to the hospital. You should also see a doctor if symptoms start to get worse or last longer than an hour.

Young girl drinking water while playing outdoors

Children and the elderly are at risk for heat-related illnesses, so it’s important to make sure they don’t overheat and stay hydrated.

Getty Images

How to Prevent Heat Stroke or Heat Exhaustion

Heat-related illnesses are totally preventable, especially if you can avoid going outside for long periods during heat waves. “If you must go out, try to do so at times earlier or later in the day when the heat may be less intense. Be sure to drink plenty of water if you have no restrictions on drinking water due to a medical condition, such as chronic heart failure,” says Dr. Adkins.

For those who do not have air conditioning at home or access to air-conditioned places, the situation is more delicate. “If you don’t have access to places with AC, try using fans for air circulation and you can use cold towels to help the body let the heat escape. Water can help the body eliminate heat and work even better when combined with fans,” says Dr. Adkins.

Who is most at risk?

Knowing who is most susceptible to heat stroke can help you identify it faster and get help for someone who is having trouble. Anyone can get heat stroke when exposed to high temperatures, even if they are indoors and without air conditioning. “Older people and young children who may not be able to recognize that they are too hot or who may not be able to communicate with someone they are hot with are at greater risk,” says the Dr Adkins.

For this reason, it is important to closely supervise children whether they are playing outside in the heat or indoors where there is no access to air conditioning or fans. Remember that many older people are now indoors and not all of them have air conditioning.

“I generally recommend that people try to watch their older neighbors without AC power in hot conditions. It’s still possible to stay socially distant and use masks to watch relatives and neighbors,” says the Dr Adkins.

Besides children and the elderly, other factors can put you at greater risk for heat-related illnesses, including alcohol and caffeine consumption, according to Dr. Adkins. “Certain medications can also make patients more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, such as beta-blockers for chronic heart failure or blood pressure control,” says Dr. Adkins.

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The information in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended to constitute medical or health advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider with any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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