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HomeFeaturesHealth & WellnessHealth Matters with Fresh Start: Is it heat stroke or heat exhaustion?

Health Matters with Fresh Start: Is it heat stroke or heat exhaustion?

By: Vanessa Flannery, DNP, APRN, FNP-C
Fresh Start Health, Grayson

Summertime in Kentucky means hot, humid temperatures when spending time outdoors for many of us. Heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be dangerous this time of year, but they are preventable. If you intend to spend time outdoors on a high-temperature day, it’s important to know and understand how to identify heat-related illness signs and symptoms, when to seek medical care, and what you can do to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke altogether. Here’s what you need to know to keep you and your family safe from the heat through the rest of the summer.

Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are both illnesses that are the result of the body overheating. However, while heat exhaustion and heat stroke occur under similar circumstances, the signs and symptoms are quite different.

One of the major differences between heat exhaustion and heat stroke is heavy sweating. Heat exhaustion happens as a result of physical activity in hot temperatures. The body begins to sweat heavily in an effort to cool itself, and heart rate slows due to exhaustion. Excessive sweating from heat exhaustion often leads to dehydration.

In some circumstances, heat exhaustion may develop into heat stroke. Unlike heat exhaustion, if suffering from heat stroke the body stops sweating, skin is dry, and heart rate will increase. Additionally, a change in mental status such as confusion is a sign of heat stroke. Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency, and treatment should not be delayed.

Here is a full list of signs and symptoms of each illness to look out for, as per the CDC.

Signs and Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

  • Heavy sweating
  • Cold, pale, and clammy skin
  • Slow heartbeat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Fainting

Signs and Symptoms of Heat Stroke

  • High body temperature of 103 or higher
  • Hot, red, dry, or damp skin
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Losing consciousness

When to Seek Medical Care

For those experiencing signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, it can usually be treated at home. Get out of the heat, rest in a cool place, and drink water. If you are experiencing nausea and vomiting and consuming fluids is made difficult then you may need to seek medical treatment. IV fluids may be necessary to re-hydrate the body.

If a person experiencing signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion begins to stop sweating, seems confused, and/or has a seizure, medical attention should be sought immediately. Please note that if severe symptoms such as seizure are present, it is time to call 911. Heat stroke has the potential to be life threatening.

Prevent Heat-Related Illnesses

Before spending a day outside in the heat, especially if you plan to be physically active, it’s important to take precautions to prevent heat-related illness. Here are 5 things you can do to keep you and your family safe.

  1. Wear appropriate clothing
    Choose clothing that is lightweight, light colors and loose fitting to keep yourself cool.
  2. Schedule outdoor activity thoughtfully & pace yourself
    If you are going to be physically active outdoors, try to choose a time when the temperature is at its lowest point. For example, mornings and evenings tend to be cooler than midday. If you are unable to plan accordingly, be sure to pace yourself while in the heat. Slow down and take breaks as needed.
  3. Wear sunscreen
    Sunburns can affect your body’s ability to cool down, and cause dehydration. To protect yourself from a sunburn be sure to wear sunscreen, SPF 15 or higher is recommended.
  4. Avoid hot and heavy meals
    Hot meals add heat to your body, stay away from hot meals on a hot day!
  5. Stay hydrated!
    Drink water consistently, don’t wait until you are thirsty. Avoid sugary, alcoholic and caffeinated drinks as these will cause you to lose body fluid.

As you plan outdoor activities this summer, keep all this information in mind. First, take the steps to prevent heat related illness, but also know the signs and symptoms to look out for and when you should seek medical treatment. Enjoy the beautiful summer weather, while also staying safe and healthy!



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