Overheated or heat-related illness? How to tell the difference.

August 2, 2022 in Healthy Living  •  By Miles Varn, MD
heat-related illness

If you feel like there have been more very hot days this year, you’re right. Data gathered by NASA projects that there’s a 99% likelihood that 2022 will rank among the ten hottest years on record. But what does this excessive heat mean for your health?

Very hot weather increases the risk of heat-related illness. There are three types of heat-related illness:

  • Heat cramps, the mild form of this type of illness that causes painful muscle cramps after intense exercise or work when the temperature is high
  • Heat exhaustion, a more serious form of illness that occurs when you sweat excessively in high heat without replacing the fluid and salts your body loses through sweat
  • Heatstroke, the most severe heat illness and a life-threatening emergency

What are the symptoms of heat exhaustion vs. heatstroke?

People who have heat exhaustion can experience a range of symptoms, including:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Pale, clammy skin
  • Feeling faint
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Muscle cramps

Babies, young children, people older than 65, and people who are obese are at higher risk for both heat exhaustion and heatstroke, although anyone can experience these illnesses. Some medications can also increase your risk, including beta blockers, diuretics, antibiotics, antihistamines, tranquilizers, and antipsychotic medications.

If you think you have heat exhaustion, the goal is to help your body cool off quickly. Move to a cool place indoors or to a shaded spot if you’re outside, stop any activity you were doing, loosen your clothes to allow airflow, sip water, and put cool, wet cloths on your body or take a cool shower. If your symptoms get worse or last longer than an hour, seek immediate medical care.

Heatstroke can cause the same symptoms as heat exhaustion, but also cause additional symptoms, including:

  • Body temperature of 104 degrees or higher
  • Confusion
  • Slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Hot, red, dry skin
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Decreased urination
  • Convulsions

If you have any of the symptoms of heatstroke, call 911 for immediate medical attention. Left untreated, heatstroke can cause serious damage to your brain and nervous system, kidneys, liver, circulatory system, respiratory system, digestive tract, and muscles and can be life threatening. Until the EMTs arrive, move to a cool place, remove excessive clothing, drench the skin with cool water, and sip cool water or sports drinks if you’re alert enough to drink.

Take steps to prevent heat-related illness

There are proactive steps you can take to lower the risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke:

  • Dress in loose, lightweight, light colored clothes made of breathable fabrics like cotton and a hat with a brim on very hot days.
  • Use sunscreen to prevent sunburn, which can reduce your body’s ability to cool itself.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking water (the average person needs around ¾ of a gallon of water per day to stay hydrated). Skip sugary drinks, drinks with caffeine, and alcohol.
  • If possible, don’t do strenuous activities or exercise during the hottest part of the day. If you work outdoors or in a place that’s not temperature controlled, make sure you’re drinking water regularly and taking breaks in a cool spot. Ask if strenuous tasks can be done earlier in the day before it gets too hot or after the hottest part of the day.
  • If your home doesn’t have air conditioning, find out if your area has cooling centers or go to a public building that is air conditioned like the library, community center, or a mall.
  • Use curtains, weather stripping, and window reflectors to keep your house cooler if needed.