Your Guide to Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion Safety

Woman suffering heatstroke outdoorsAccording to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), approximately 618 people die of a heat-related illness annually in the United States. Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are heat-related illnesses that can be prevented with the right tools and information. Your core body temperature is generally 98.6℉. Heat exhaustion is your body overheating, while heatstroke is your body’s temperature increasing to 104℉ or more.

Causes of Heat Intolerance

Your body has a natural way to keep you cool when your temperature rises. The hypothalamus is a small structure in your brain and it does many things, one of which is to regulate body temperature. When your temperature rises, whether you’re exercising or working in the yard on a hot day, the hypothalamus sends signals throughout your body to cool itself down. This is why you sweat. And when sweat evaporates, it causes you to feel cool, even in the heat.

Heatstroke can be categorized into two forms: Nonexertional and Exertional. Nonexertional or classic heatstroke is usually seen in children, infants, seniors, and inactive individuals – those who have trouble adapting to temperature changes, or acclimating to their environment. You could be on a beach or in a crowded auditorium. Your body temperature rises and has a difficult time cooling on its own.

Exertional heatstroke is reserved for those individuals who are active outdoors or stay in confined, warm spaces without air conditioning or whole-room fans. Athletes and people who run for exercise can develop heatstroke if their bodies have not acclimated to the weather. They can also develop it if they are not drinking enough fluids to replace what’s lost during the exercise.

Your Body Can’t Cool Itself

For some, your body may not regulate temperature the same it does for most people. These individuals may have anhidrosis. Anhidrosis, sometimes referred to as hypohidrosis, is the inability to produce sweat, and can affect small or larger areas of your body. People with severe anhidrosis can have trouble being outdoors on a hot day even if they are not doing rigorous activities. Without being able to sweat, you could easily develop heat exhaustion, and within minutes or hours, you could have heatstroke. So, laying in the sun on the beach may be a challenge for you if you have anhidrosis.

There are several causes of anhidrosis. You could have an issue with your sweat glands, it could be an inherited condition, or you could have a connective tissue disorder. You should speak to your doctor if you suspect you are not producing enough sweat.

Increased Risk Factors

Although anyone can develop heatstroke or heat exhaustion, certain elements increase your risk.

Age

elderly woman using fanIf you’re older than 60 or younger than 4, you have a greater chance of suffering from heat exhaustion and heatstroke. For infants and children, their bodies aren’t developed enough yet to be able to regulate body temperature own their own. It isn’t until puberty that your sweat glands become fully matured. When a child is sick with a fever higher than 102℉, you should contact the child’s pediatrician. If it reaches 104℉, you should either call 911 or take them to the emergency room. Heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke in children, and quickly turn into a life-threatening situation.

Seniors are more prone to heat-related illnesses. After a certain age, your body no longer produces the same amount of sweat as when you were younger. Without enough sweat to regulate your body temperature, you could overheat rapidly.

Medications

Anyone taking medications, whether they are over-the-counter or prescription meds, should read the side effects carefully. Many medications cause photosensitivity. Photosensitivity alters the way your skin reacts to the sun. Some diuretic medications can make you less thirsty and cause you to urinate more often. In this case, you can become dehydrated. If you’re taking antidepressants that disrupt your ability to sweat, you can be at risk for heat-related illness.

Personal Health

Chronic medical conditions are factors in increased heat-related illnesses. Those with significant circulation issues such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, or coronary artery disease have a greater chance of being affected by extreme temperatures. Their bodies have a difficult time trying to compensate for the medical condition, and temperature regulation is problematic.

Sudden Temperature Changes

If you are traveling to different parts of the country or the world, make sure to keep an eye on how the temperature will change from one destination to the next. Sudden changes from cold to hot won’t give your body enough time to adapt to the change and you could find yourself overheating. Check the weather and give yourself time to acclimate to the change in situations.

High Heat Index

The high heat index is what the temperature feels like in relation to what it actually is. It is a combination of heat and humidity. Humidity can increase the actual temperature several degrees, making it feel hotter than the actual temperature. It can make 90℉ feel as if it’s almost 100℉. The impact with the heat index to your body is high humidity makes it more difficult for your sweat to evaporate. In turn, it’s harder for you to stay cool. There are ways to manage humidity in your home if you live in a humid area.

Other Factors Leading to Heatstroke or Exhaustion

Some ways you might be affected by heat exhaustion or heatstroke is if you:

  • Drink alcohol. Alcohol is a diuretic, which causes you to lose water rapidly. Drinking alcohol doesn’t replace the fluid you’ve lost the same way it does when you drink water. For every alcoholic beverage you consume, you should have a glass of water. This will help to keep you hydrated whether you’re having an adult pool party, enjoying a day on a boat, or celebrating Independence Day with friends.
  • Dress for the weather. To prevent heatstroke or exhaustion, wear light colors under the sun and don’t put on too many layers when you’re exercising.
  • Become dehydrated. Dehydration generally accompanies heat-related illnesses. When the body loses more water than it is consuming, you become dehydrated. You not only lose water, but you also lose salt or electrolytes. This is the reason it is important to drink plenty of fluids, especially water or fluid containing electrolytes, throughout the day. If you find yourself excessively thirsty with little urine output, you could be dehydrated.

Preventing Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion

Water pouring into glass
  • Wear appropriate clothing. If you know you will be outdoors for long stretches of time in the heat, then wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing. If you’re going to exercise or go for a run, make sure to add a hat to your wardrobe.
  • Drink water. If you’re going out during the summer months, whether it is to work or to play, make sure you bring plenty of water to drink. You can also bring water packed with electrolytes.
  • Stay in cool areas. Minimize your heat risks by staying in the shade. Finding shelter under groves of trees or a canopy while you’re outdoors is one of the best ways to prevent heat-related illnesses. When going to the beach, bring a large umbrella to keep you protected.
  • Apply sunscreen. Wearing sunscreen protects you from dangerous UV rays, which can damage your skin.
  • Avoid high noon. Refrain from going out when the sun is at its highest.
  • Acclimate to the weather. Start before the weather turns hot and slowly get used to the heat by decreasing the air conditioner a few degrees every day for two weeks. This will help you slowly get used to the upcoming summer heatwave.
  • Know your risks. If you are aware you are predisposed to heat intolerance, then you should take precautions. Your medications or medical conditions could affect how the sun treats you. Be vigilant before going outdoors for long periods of time, and avoid strenuous activities.

Symptoms of Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion

When the body is unable to cool itself, it can lead to heatstroke or heat exhaustion. Heatstroke is a life-threatening, heat-related illness that can damage vital body organs, including the brain. Pay close attention to anyone that may have symptoms of heatstroke, including:

  • Hot and dry skin
  • Not sweating
  • Extremely high body temperature – 104℉ or more
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Pounding headache
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • A rapid, pounding pulse
  • Fainting or syncope

When the body is unable to regulate its own internal temperature, you may develop heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion may be mild or serious. Watch out for signs someone has heat exhaustion and get them to a cool, shady place. Symptoms may include:

  • Thirst
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache
  • Fainting or syncope
  • Pale and clammy skin
  • Extreme sweating
  • Overly tired
  • Muscle cramps

What to Do If Someone is Affected

Girl collapsed on ground from heatstrokeIf you’ve noticed someone has some or all the symptoms of heatstroke, you should get them to a shaded area. Spray them with a water hose, use a misting fan, or have them take a cool bath or shower. For athletes, you could use ice packs or wet towels to bring the temperature down quickly. Place them in the armpits, behind the neck, or between the legs near the groin.

Stay with them until their temperature drops below 102℉. The prognosis for heatstroke victims is good if it is treated quickly. If it is not, you are at risk of damaging your brain and other organs. You could be in the hospital from 1 day to 2 months in order to recover.

If someone is experiencing heat exhaustion, bring them indoors, or in a cool, shaded area perhaps under a tree or near a building. Remove any tight clothing. Give them fluids. Water is best, but do not give them an alcoholic or sugary drink. Wipe them down with a cool cloth or fan them with a battery fan. Allow them to rest and recover.

When to Call 911

It’s vital to get help immediately if you notice someone with symptoms of heatstroke. Call 911 if you notice heat exhaustion symptoms have not improved or have gotten worse in the last hour. A medical professional will determine if the body temperature is still too high and needs to be placed in an ice bath. They can also prepare an IV line with fluids to replenish the individual’s water loss. They’ll be able to monitor the person’s vital signs and temperature until it reaches normal levels. They may also be able to determine if there are any underlying causes your body is not cooling itself right.

Conclusion

The adult human body is made of approximately 60% water. When part of it is lost and not regularly replaced, you could develop heatstroke or heat exhaustion. Anyone can be at risk, but infants, children, and seniors are at greater risk of nonexertional heatstroke because they are not able to regulate their body temperature as others can.

Sudden temperature changes, medications you take, and a high heat index are other factors that contribute to heat-related illnesses. Staying out of direct sunlight, wearing light-colored clothing, and sunscreen can also help with prevention. If you notice symptoms of someone with hot skin that is not sweating, or if they are weak, dizzy, lose consciousness, or their temperature is over 103℉, then you should call 911 immediately. If you experience any symptoms of heat exhaustion, get indoors or go to a cool, shaded area. Drink a cool nonalcoholic liquid and rest until your body readjusts.