Heat-related illnesses can be very serious, so it's important to recognize if they are happening.
It can be uncomfortable to spend time outdoors when it's very hot. But if you're not careful, it can also be downright dangerous. Heat-related illnesses are not uncommon and can make you feel sick. If left unchecked, they can even become life-threatening.
Here are signs of three types of heat-related illnesses, and what to do if you or someone you know exhibits these signs.
Heat cramps usually happen when you're exercising in the heat and you're sweating so much that you're losing salt and fluid, causing your muscles to cramp. The most common symptoms include muscle pain or spasms during exercise, usually in the legs, arms or abdomen. You'll also be sweating heavily but your skin should be cool and moist.
If you experience these signs, stop the activity you are doing and wait for the cramps to go away before resuming your activity. In the meantime, drink water or a sports drink and try to stay cool. If the cramps persist for more than an hour, you are on a low-sodium diet or you have heart problems, seek medical attention.
Heat exhaustion can occur if you're out in the heat for long periods of time or don't drink enough fluids. Signs of heat exhaustion mean you need to get out of the heat right away and get to a cool place. You also need to cool your body down before symptoms escalate to heat stroke. Common symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Heavy sweating
- Extreme thirst
- Decrease in urination
- Nausea or vomiting
- Muscle cramps
- Lack of coordination
- Cold, pale, clammy skin
- Fast, weak pulse
- Rapid breathing
To cool your body down, move to a cool place, loosen your clothes and put cool compresses on your body or take a cool bath or shower. It's also important to drink water, but sip it slowly, don't chug it. If your symptoms last longer than an hour or get worse, get medical help right away.
This is the most serious heat-related illness and should be considered a medical emergency. A person's body temperature may quickly rise to temperatures of 106oF or higher, which is extremely dangerous and can lead to organ failure and even death. If you notice someone with these symptoms, call 911. In the meantime, help lower the person's body temperature by getting them out of the heat and placing cool compresses on them or putting them in a cool bath (don't leave them unattended). Do not give the person anything to drink.
Symptoms of heat stroke include:
- Hot, red, dry skin
- No sweating
- Fast, strong pulse
- Muscle twitching
- Slurred speech
- Confusion, hallucinations, altered mental state
- High body temperature (103oF or higher)
- Passing out, loss of consciousness
Seeking Medical Attention
Some symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke are similar. If you are unsure if a person needs medical attention, err on the side of caution and get help. Most importantly, if someone appears confused or has an altered level of consciousness, call 911 and seek medical attention immediately. Even if you think a person is experiencing heat exhaustion and not heat stroke, get medical help if the person does not seem to quickly improve once they are out of the heat and measures are taken to try to cool them down.
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Date Last Reviewed: June 16, 2023
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD