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what are heatstroke and heat exhaustion?

Summer 101: What is heatstroke and heat exhaustion?
Compassionate Eye Foundation/Katie Huisman / Getty

Summer is great for spending time outdoors with family, hitting the beach, or just getting in a good workout, but everyone should be a little wary of the warm weather. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), heat-related illness, also known as a hyperthermia, is caused by exposure to extreme heat. When someones body cant cool itself down enough, their temperature rises quickly, and it can become a dire situation if the person doesnt get medical attention as soon as possible. Exposure to extreme heat can also exacerbate preexisting conditions, including heart and respiratory diseases. The CDC reports that there were 8,081 heat-related deaths in the United States from 1999 to 2010, with 72% of these cases citing heat exposure as the primary cause of death.

Infants, small children, and adults over 65 are at a higher risk for heat-related illnesses, as are people who are overweight, have diabetes, heart disease, or other pre-existing conditions. Drinking alcohol or taking certain medications when youre going to be in the heat all day can also hinder your body’s ability to cool itself and put you at risk of heat exhaustion or stroke.

Even if you don’t fit any of those descriptions, don’t think that youre immune to heat-related illness. Heat exhaustion and heatstroke can happen to anyone, especially those who participate in physical activity outside in warm weather. So whether you’re just tossing a football back and forth with your buddies or training hard for a triathlon, make sure to keep hydrated and stay safe.

Keep reading to learn what the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke are and what to do if you or a friend is suffering from a heat-related illness.

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is one of the more serious heat-related illnesses, and some of the symptoms include muscle cramps, fatigue, headache, nausea or vomiting, dizziness, and fainting. Despite the body being overheated, someone suffering from heat exhaustion will often have cool, moist skin. This is actually positive sign, because it means the body still has some ability to cool itself. Someone suffering from heat exhaustion will also have a fast, weak pulse and rapid, shallow breathing.

If you think youre showing signs of heat exhaustion, the Mayo Clinic says to stop all physical activity immediately. You should get yourself to a cool place, rest, and drink cool water or a sports drink to rehydrate yourself until your symptoms subside. If these symptoms don’t go away in less than an hour, or you start to feel dizzy or lose consciousness, contact your doctor. If your body temperature rises above 104°F, you need medical attention right away.

What is heatstroke?

Heatstroke is the most severe heat-related illness, and it requires emergency treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic, if left untreated, heatstroke can damage your brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles, leading to serious long-term health effects or even death.

Heatstroke shares symptoms with heat exhaustion—think muscle cramps, fatigue, and headaches—because heat exhaustion is the step before getting heatstroke. Some of the symptoms separating heatstroke from heat exhaustion are a body temperature of 104°F or higher, skin thats hot to the touch, flushed skin, increased dizziness, fainting, and slurred speech. If someone is suffering from heatstroke, they may get confused and irritable and can suffer from seizures or fall into a coma. We dont need to tell you that those are all seriously not good.

If you or someone else is showing signs of heatstroke, calling 911 should be your next move. While you wait for medical help, get the person to a cooler location, remove excess clothing, and cool them down any way you can. This could include putting the individual in a cool tub or shower or putting ice packs or wet towels on the persons head, neck, armpits, and groin.

7 Tips to Prevent Heat-related Illness:

The most common weather-related deaths in the U.S. involve heat exposure, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). That said, there are many ways to prevent this if youre being mindful of the weather and your body.

  1. Wear loose-fitting clothing to allow your body to cool properly—heavy, tight-fitting clothing wont do your body any favors as it tries to cool itself down.
  2. Make sure to use sunscreen and reapply every two hours spent in direct sunlight. Sunburn, we’re sure this comes as no surprise, also makes your body warmer than usual. 
  3. Another no-brainer: Don’t sit in or leave children or pets in cars. Cars heat up quickly, and this oversight is the most common cause of heat-related fatalities in children.
  4. Be mindful of the times of the day that will be the hottest. Don’t want until 1:00 p.m. to go on that five-mile jog.
  5. If you are going to be active in the heat, take some time to get acclimated to the environment. Many cases of heat-related illnesses are caused by people working out in hot weather without giving their body time to get used to the new climate.
  6. During heat waves, check in on those who are at a higher risk of developing heatstroke or exhaustion.
  7. And, as always, make sure to stay hydrated during physical activity.

Make sure to spread the word and follow these steps to ensure a happy, safe, and active summer.

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