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What You Should Know About Heat Exhaustion and Heat Strokes

Updated on August 24, 2009

Every summer you hear about at least one death caused by heat-related illnesses. But there are ways to protect yourself and loved ones.

Check at least twice a day on people aged 65 or older, people who are physically ill (especially those with high blood pressure or heart disease) and people who have a mental illness. Infants and young children will need more monitoring. And, of course, never ever leave anyone in a closed, parked vehicle.

There are several heat-related illnesses but I will review the four that are most commonly heard of (heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat strokes). This will include causes, signs to watch for and how to administer first aid treatment.

Let's first begin with an overview of how and why heat-related illnesses occur:

The nervous system maintains body temperature. When body temperature increases, the body responds by transferring heat. Two of the ways the body attempts to maintain temperature are thermoregulation, when blood flows to the skin, and sweating.

When the body is not capable of transferring heat any longer, heat-related illnesses occur. This is very dangerous because extremely high temperatures have the potential to damage the brain and other vital organs.

There are conditions that increase chances of heat-related illnesses. Because sweat doesn’t evaporate as quickly in high humidity, this is a leading cause. Other factors include: obesity, dehydration, poor circulation, mental illness, heart disease, sunburn, fever, prescription drug use and alcohol use.Also people that are either of old age or very young (between the ages of 0 to 4) are unable to regulate temperature as efficiently and are at greater risk.

Heat Rash

Excessive sweating may cause heat rash. Heat rash is a skin irritation that usually occurs during hot and humid weather. Young children are most susceptible to heat rashes.

Fortunately, treatment is relatively simple and in most circumstances will not require medical intervention. To treat heat rashes, keep the area that is affected dry. Try dusting powder over the heat rash to decrease discomfort. Ointments and creams should be avoided. Applying these products keep the skin moist and warm and can possibly worsen the condition.

You can protect yourself by taking a cool shower or bath and staying in an air-conditioned atmosphere. Using air conditioners is one of the most effective ways to guard against heat-related illnesses. Drink lots of fluids (more than normal) and pace yourself when working outdoors.

Also, wear appropriate clothing. The best clothes to wear are those that are loose, light-colored and lightweight. Wear a wide-brimmed hat for extra measure.

To protect against sunburn, apply sunscreen 30 minutes before heading outdoors. Reapply throughout the day as instructed. Sunburns increase your risk because it disrupts your body’s ability to cool itself.

Heat Cramps

In hot weather, heat cramps can occur during heavy exercise when muscles are fatigued from heavy work. They are painful involuntary muscle spasms that are usually more severe and last longer than nighttime leg cramps.

Persons suffering from heat cramps must rest and cool down. Drink an electrolyte sports drinks or some clear juice. An at home solution can be mixed by dissolving ¼ to ½ teaspoon table salt in a quart of water. Also, doing gentle stretching and massage can help. If the cramps persist for more than an hour, call your doctor.

Drink Plenty Of Fluids and Electrolytes
Drink Plenty Of Fluids and Electrolytes

Heat Exhaustion

Inadequate fluid intake plays a significant role in heat exhaustion. This can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures.

Victims of heat exhaustion will exhibit fast and weak pulse rates, fast and shallow breathing along with cool and moist skin. It is important to treat heat exhaustion because it may progress to heat stroke.

It is extremely important to cool the body down. This may be done by drinking cool non-alcoholic beverages, staying in an air-conditioned room, and resting.

If the person that is suffering from heat exhaustion has severe symptoms, high blood pressure or heart problems, call 911 immediately.

Heat Strokes

Heat stroke is more severe and will require immediate medical care. It can be fatal unless treated properly and promptly. Heat stroke is hyperthermia (abnormally high body temperature) with physical and neurological symptoms.

Dehydration, extreme heat, high humidity or vigorous exertion under the sun can lead to heat strokes. Again, this is because the body is unable to transfer heat. Infants, the elderly, athletes and physical outdoor workers have a higher chance of suffering a heat stroke. Heat stroke victims must be treated immediately to avoid organ damage. Notify emergency services right away.

One of the scary things about heat strokes is that some people can develop symptoms suddenly and swiftly with no warning. Some symptoms to be aware of are fatigue, vomiting, nausea, headache, weakness, muscle cramps/aches and dizziness.

Signs of heat stroke are rapid pulse, difficulty breathing, absence of sweating (accompanied with flushed, hot red skin), strange behavior, confusion, agitation, disorientation, hallucinations, or seizure.

The most important thing to do is to cool the victim. CDC (Center For Disease Control and Prevention) says to move him/her to a shady area, remove clothing and apply tepid or cool water (an example might be cool water from a garden hose). Fan the victim to promote evaporation and sweating, and place ice packs on groins and under the armpits. Continue to cool and monitor body temperature until it drops to 101-102°F.

Some precautionary measures to avoid heat strokes include drinking plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration and to replenish electrolytes. Again, wear appropriate clothing. Try to avoid vigorous activities when it is humid. If physical activity must be performed outdoors, take lots of breaks and drink lots of liquids as mentioned earlier. But avoid caffeine, alcohol and tea (these can lead to dehydration).

Other Heat-Related Illnesses

There are several other forms of heat-related illnesses such as heat edema (swelling in the legs and hands), heat tetany (hyperventilation and heat stress) and heat syncope (fainting).

All heat-related illnesses, heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion and especially heat strokes are something that everyone should really be aware. Armed with information anyone can watch for symptoms and affectively offer help when appropriately needed.

How To Prevent Heat Illnesses Presented By Dr. Eric Coris


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    • profile image

      Useful Knowledge 

      9 years ago

      Very nice hub. Heat stroke is a serious thing. Also, welcome to Hubpages.

    • EnrapturedFlame profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago

      Hi Jen! You're absolutely right, that's a great idea! I will have to fix it when I have a chance. Thank you for stopping by and bringing that to my attention!

    • Jen's Solitude profile image

      Jen's Solitude 

      9 years ago from Delaware

      Very good article. You could also add Multiple Sclerosis as a heat related illness. MS causes an alarming sensitivity to heat and humidity. Many people with MS will have a flare-up of symptoms if they do not learn the exact temperature their bodies can tolerate.

      Welcome to hubpages, by the way.



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