Is It Heatstroke Or Heat Exhaustion?

Make no mistake about it, the summer heat IS coming and being prepared for the heat is critically important for your health and for the health of your loved ones or anyone you may be caregiving for.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that more than 600 people die every year from heat-related illnesses related to high temperatures or above-normal temperatures and humid weather in the United States.  You read that correctly – even weather that is more humid than usual can be dangerous.

In this article we are going to talk about the differences between heatstroke and heat exhaustion and what you can do to stay safe.

What is Heat Exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is not as dangerous as heatstroke. While heatstroke may cause damage to your body’s organs and functions, heat exhaustion does not cause damage – however it is dangerous and may lead to heat stroke.   Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Sweating
  • Cold, clammy skin (even in the heat)
  • Dizziness and/or fainting
  • Headache
  • Darker colored urine
  • Weak, rapid heartbeat

What to do if you experience heat exhaustion?

If you suspect you are experiencing heat exhaustion rest and rehydrate immediately, get out of the sun and relocate to a cooler area. If symptoms continue and do not improve, it is important to seek medical attention quickly.

What is Heat Stroke?

When your body reaches a temperature of 104F or higher, you may have heatstroke.  This is a true medical emergency which needs immediate medical attention. 

Simply sitting in the shade or sipping cool water may not be enough to take you out of the danger.   Without medical treatment heatstroke begins to affect your lungs, liver, kidneys, brain, nervous system, circulatory system and your muscles, causing damage.  The symptoms of heatstroke mimic that of heat exhaustion at first, and then escalate to include the following symptoms:

  • Temperature over 104F
  • Hot, dry skin
  • Rapid, racing heartbeat
  • Seizure
  • Slurring of speech
  • Confusion and/or agitation
  • Loss of consciousness possibly leading to coma

Types of heat stroke

It is important to understand the two types of heat stroke, because it is easy to assume that because you are not sitting outside in the sun or actively moving outside on a hot day that you are safe from sunstroke.

Exertional heat stroke – This is the type of heatstroke that can occur when you exert yourself through exercise or being physically active out in the heat.  At some point your body can no longer adapt to the rising temperatures.

Non-exertional heat stroke – This type of heatstroke often occurs with seniors or others with chronic illness, who can’t adapt to hot weather, such as someone who is indoors where it is very warm and without air conditioning.  You will often hear of people becoming ill during heat waves, when the temperatures continue to rise and there is no way to find relief from the heat. At some point we become unable to handle the heat.

Are you at Risk for Heat Stroke?

As stated earlier, heat stroke can happen to anyone, but some people are at higher risk for heat-related illnesses.  Some risk factors include:

Prescription medications – some prescription medications may put you at risk for dehydration, such as medications for certain heart conditions or for high blood pressure.  Speak to your doctor about what you can do during hotter days to prevent dehydration while taking your medication.

Age – seniors over the age of 65 and children under the age of 6 may be at higher risk for heat-related illnesses.

Weight – being overweight may impact your ability to cool down in hot weather, as your body retains more heat with more weight.

Activity – if you know you are going to be very active in the heat, you should know you are at risk. Take precautions and review the “How to Prevent Heat Stroke” tips below.

Travel – when you travel from a cooler climate to a hot climate, the sudden change of temperature may be hard for your body to adjust to.

Heat Index – when the heat index, which measures the humidity and the outdoor temperature and calculates how the heat feels to your body, is higher than 91F (32.8C), it is considered very high and may pose a health risk.

How to Prevent Heat Stroke

Summer is a time to enjoy better weather and have fun and be active, and this includes getting out and enjoying each and every day while being proactively health aware.  Preventing heat-related illnesses is important, so here are some tips to help you prevent heat stroke:

  • Do not leave children, pets, adults, seniors or anyone at all in a hot, closed vehicle. Temperatures may rise rapidly and heat stroke can come on quickly.
  • If you are exercising, walking, gardening, or doing any activities out in the warm weather, be sure to schedule breaks to cool off and stay hydrated.
  • If you feel your body is getting warm, take a cool shower or use a cool compress on your neck to help bring down your body temperature.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine when you are active outside as they will dehydrate you.
  • Drink plenty of water on hot days, as your body is sweating and needs more hydration than usual.
  • Check in on seniors and other people who are at home and may not have air conditioning. Help them stay cool or relocate to a cooler place if they are unable to do so themselves.
  • Wear loose, lightly colored, lighter-material clothing and a hat to help keep your body cool.
  • If you are indoors, use a fan to help the air circulate and to help you stay cool.
  • Avoid strenuous activity during the middle of the day when it is hottest.

Heat stroke is a serious medical emergency.  Remember, if you feel the symptoms of heat stroke or if you see someone who is struggling with symptoms of heat stroke, seek emergency medical treatment.

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If you have questions about your prescription medications or any other medication, please contact our team at Canada Online Health by calling toll free 1-800-399-DRUG (3784). One of our patient representatives will be happy to assist you or transfer you to a licensed Canadian pharmacist for a free consultation.

This article contains medical information provided to help you better understand this particular medical condition or process, and may contain information about medication often used as part of a treatment plan prescribed by a doctor.  It is not intended to be used as either a diagnosis or recommendation for treatment of your particular medical situation.  If you are unwell, concerned about your physical or mental state, or are experiencing symptoms you should speak with your doctor or primary health care provider. If you are in medical distress please contact emergency services (such as 911).

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