CareNow® - August 20, 2021

As the temperature continues to rise, many people begin to partake in additional activities outdoors.

Although outdoor activities can provide a great escape during the COVID-19 pandemic, the potential threat of heat-related illnesses are important to consider.

In this article we will discuss one of the more common heat-related illnesses: heat exhaustion.

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What Is Heat Exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is a heat-related illness that occurs when a person's body overheats in response to external factors, the primary one being high temperature.

Heat exhaustion can happen to anyone, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 600 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year.

Heat exhaustion is most common in athletes and people who exercise outdoors during extremely hot weather. It is important to note that air temperature is not the only factor when evaluating your risk of heat exhaustion as high humidity can also reduce your body’s ability to cool.

Heat exhaustion is not limited to the outdoors, as it can also occur if you’re in a hot car or other indoor area where air circulation is limited.

Babies, young children and the elderly are most susceptible to heat exhaustion. It is important to note, heat exhaustion is different from heatstroke and often less severe.

Although heat exhaustion is generally considered less of an issue, it can commonly lead to a more dangerous condition, such as a heat stroke, if immediate action is not taken.

What Are the Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion?

The symptoms of heat exhaustion can vary, and not all may be present in every situation. These symptoms may also manifest themselves in different ways. For some people, symptoms come on suddenly without warning, and for others they may creep up gradually.

Commonly, heat exhaustion is preceded by heat cramps. Heat cramps are one of the most mild forms of heat illness and generally a precursor to a potential problem. They may cause the body to experience muscle cramps and spasms.

In addition to these cramps, a person may have one or several symptoms, including:

  • A sudden lowering of your blood pressure during a strenuous activity
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or feeling sick to the stomach
  • Feeling like you are going to blackout or seeing spots
  • Extreme sweating from many areas of the body
  • Skin that is clammy or cool to the touch
  • An inconsistent heart rate or one that becomes weak despite beating rapidly
  • Severe headache
  • Heat cramps

What Are the Primary Causes of Heat Exhaustion?

The primary cause of any heat-related illness is when something is limiting the body's natural ability to regulate its temperature. The body's primary defense against overheating is sweat, which allows the body to naturally cool down in order to prevent overheating.

Although everyone sweats when exercising, sweat alone does not indicate heat exhaustion. A lack of sweat combined with any of the following may increase the odds of a person experiencing heat exhaustion:

  • Extreme dehydration or lack of sodium
  • Wearing clothing that is not appropriate for the weather, including items that are too heavy or tight
  • Consuming alcohol or caffeine prior to exercise

If a person begins to experience heat exhaustion, it is important to act fast. If action is not taken over an extended period of time, heat stroke can occur.

Unfortunately, heat exhaustion can turn to heat stroke quickly.

What Is Heat Stroke and Is It Related to Heat Exhaustion?

As mentioned above, if a person is experiencing heat exhaustion, and steps are not taken, heat stroke can occur. The medical definition of heat stroke is a core body temperature greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, and it is generally considered a more serious condition than heat exhaustion.

Heat stroke is a form of hyperthermia and is a serious medical emergency that can be fatal if not promptly and properly treated. As with any heat-related illness, the best things you can do to prevent heat strokes are to stay hydrated, begin drinking water before activity begins and avoid performing physical activities in hot and humid weather when the heat index is high.

Common symptoms associated with heat stroke include:

  • Severe headache
  • An elevated fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or more when illness is not suspected
  • Dizziness or general disorientation
  • Lack of awareness or sudden confusion
  • Losing consciousness
  • Hot and dry skin with limited perspiration

Immediate Treatment of Heat Exhaustion

If you or someone you are with seems to be experiencing a heat-related illness like heat exhaustion, it is important to stop any activity immediately and seek rest in a cooler area.

If the person suffering heat exhaustion symptoms is a baby, small child or older person, it is important to have them seen by a medical professional, even if the symptoms don't progress.

Below are a few things you should do to start treatment of heat exhaustion immediately:

  • Cool the person's body down as quickly as possible by moving out of the sun or to an air-conditioned building.
  • Give the person water or a beverage containing sodium or electrolytes, like a sports drink. Since dehydration is often the cause of heat-related illnesses, replenishing fluids as quickly as possible is crucial.
  • If the person is wearing layers of clothing or tight clothing items, it may be helpful to loosen or remove them.
  • Apply any available cool items to the person's body. These items may include things like ice packs or towels soaked in ice water. Placing the cold item in areas where sweat is common is generally most effective.

For a healthy adult with no additional medical considerations, a full recovery from heat exhaustion typically occurs within a couple hours if treatment begins immediately. If your symptoms worsen or seem to progress to heat stroke, it is important to seek medical help immediately.

If you have concerns about heat exhaustion or are experiencing any of the symptoms associated with heat exhaustion this summer, visit your local CareNow®.

With more than 100 urgent care clinics throughout the United States, the healthcare professionals at CareNow® are ready to give you the care you need, when and where you need it. You can also avoid waiting before your visit by utilizing our Web Check-In® feature prior to your appointment!

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Disclaimer: Patients’ health can vary. Always consult with a medical professional before taking medication, making health-related decisions or deciding if medical advice is right for you.