Whenever it gets warmer, and you’ll probably hear two particular terms on the news: heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

What signs or symptoms should you look for, and how do you prevent them? Here’s how — and why — to stay cool.

Cooling off in summer - hose water

Summer madness

Summertime is upon us, and that means the kids are out of school, the lawn needs mowing weekly, trips to the pool or beach, camping, hiking, and scores of other outdoor activities — all under the merciless sun beating down with immense heat. While summer is the time for outdoor fun for many of us, it’s also a time to take care while enjoying the great outdoors.

I’m not saying you have to be worried, I’m not trying to instill fear in you, and I’m not saying lock your kids up in the safety of the air conditioning and never let them outside. (I’ll let the mainstream media dish out the pointless fear.) What I will say is that you need to be observant, and you need to stay on top of your health and hydration in the hot summer months.

First, let’s take a look at the definitions of heat exhaustion and heat stroke (aka heat stress disorders) and the signs and symptoms of each, followed by some preventative measures.

Heat exhaustion

According to the Mayo Clinic, heat exhaustion is “a condition whose symptoms may include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse, a result of your body overheating.”

sunny sunflower in the sunIn layman’s terms, it’s your body’s way of telling you that you are overexerting yourself and that it is starting to overheat — a warning signal, before things start getting really nasty.

Your body cools itself primarily by sweating — sweat comes out, evaporates, and regulates your body temperature appropriately. This is normally enough — even in high heat conditions — to keep your core temperature right around 98.6 F where it belongs.

>> Kids in hot cars: Heatstroke fact sheet

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Now, if you exercise strenuously or overexert yourself in hot and humid weather, the body can’t cool itself as efficiently, and eventually leads you down the road to heat exhaustion.

Some signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Cool, moist skin with goosebumps, despite the heat
  • Faintness or dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Muscle cramps

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, stop what you’re doing and rest, move to a cooler place, and drink cool water or a sports drink like Gatorade to help replenish lost electrolytes. If you don’t start feeling better within an hour, your signs and symptoms get worse, or your body temperature reaches 104 F, it’s time to see the doctor.

Heat stroke

If you ignore the symptoms of heat exhaustion and don’t take the corrective steps above, you will soon fall victim to heat stroke, “caused by prolonged exposure to high temperatures or by doing physical activity in hot weather. You are considered to have heat stroke when your body temperature reaches 104 F or higher.”

>> Don’t dry out: Be sure to drink enough water

Essentially, heat stroke is what happens when you continue to ignore the warning signs your body gives you that you are getting overheated. Heat stroke is a serious medical condition, and is considered a medical emergency — if left untreated, heat stroke can damage your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles within a matter of hours.

Signs and symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Body temperature of 104 F or higher
  • A lack of sweating, despite the heat
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Flushed skin
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

If you or someone you know is experiencing these signs and symptoms, get them to a doctor immediately. At this point, they’re beyond a cool bottle of Gatorade and some shade making them feel better. They need rapid medical intervention to bring their temperature down.

Preventative measures

The best way to treat heat exhaustion/heat stroke is… wait for it… don’t get them in the first place. Pretty simple, no?

Here are some steps you can take, courtesy of both the Center for Disease Control and the Federal Emergency Management Agency:

  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages
  • Wear appropriate clothing and sunscreen — loose fitting and lightweight
  • Schedule outdoor activities for cooler times of the day
  • Use the buddy system — if you must work outdoors, keep an eye on each other
  • Pace yourself — go easy
  • Stay indoors — no AC at home? Go to the mall, library, or other public place
  • Eat appropriately — heavy meals and hot foods will heat you up
  • Never leave pets, children, your mother-in-law, etc. in parked cars

A lot of these tips are common sense, but it never hurts to be reminded. Also keep in mind that children and the elderly are more susceptible to heat illnesses — keep an eye on your kids and if you have an elderly neighbor or relative, check in with them once or twice a day to make sure they are doing okay.

In short, stay out of the heat as much as possible, dress accordingly, and stay hydrated. If you do these things, the heat should be no more than a discomfort — and not life-threatening.


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