Beat the heat: avoid heat stroke and heat-related illnesses

Summer is in full effect and getting outside for some sun feels oh so good. Summertime is full of fun, but let’s make it safe! Besides lathering up for sun protection and wearing a helmet when riding bikes, we want to make sure you know about heat-related illnesses, too. 

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke occur when the body can’t keep itself cool. More than 600 people in the United States are killed by extreme heat every year, according to the CDC. The good news is that heat-related deaths and illnesses are very preventable. Read on for everything you need to know about heat stroke and heat exhaustion.

How much heat is too much? What exactly is heat exhaustion?

Feeling tired after a day at the beach is a common feeling, but an important one to pay attention to. The CDC defines heat exhaustion as a milder form of heat-related illness that can develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids. Heat exhaustion happens quicker and more commonly to the elderly, children four years old and younger, people with high blood pressure, and anyone working or exercising in a hot environment. 

Signs of heat exhaustion to look out for are:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting

Heat illnesses occur when the body can’t cool itself off. Typically, when it is hot out, the body will sweat to cool down. However, cooling off can be especially difficult for the body when it is hot and humid. When the humidity is high, it makes it hard for the sweat to evaporate and cool off the skin quickly. Your body continues to sweat and lose water, but it isn’t actually able to reduce its temperature.

How can I prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke?

The first steps to cool the body during heat exhaustion are hydrating the body and keeping cool. You may notice a fast heart rate and/or fast breathing. With any signs of heat exhaustion, you should immediately:

  • Drink cool, nonalcoholic beverages
  • Rest
  • Take a cool shower, bath, or sponge bath
  • Seek an air-conditioned environment
  • Wear lightweight clothing

It may seem obvious, but it’s worth highlighting: keeping cool and hydrated are KEY to preventing heat-related illnesses. If you can access an air conditioned area, or a shady cool spot on a hot day, make sure to take breaks and do so. 

Make a plan before heading outside

  1. Schedule breaks inside an air conditioned home, or a public location such as a library or community center throughout the day
  2. The cool ocean water, sprinkler and shower are great options to quickly reduce body temps
  3. Prepare cooling towels or ice packs covered with a damp towel for instant relief
  4. Using a fan can help cool the body, but be careful on hot days, as 90 degree heat is still dangerous, even with a fan on. It’s important to drop the temperature of the body, which a fan won’t do in extreme temperatures. Try your best to find some AC on those days!
  5. Bring fluids in a cooler with you (or at least keep them in the shade!) and make sure to drink plenty of fluids on hot days, especially when you are sweating a lot. Drinking water before heading out helps, too!
  6. If you are sweating in the heat, it’s also important to replace the salt, sugar and minerals you’re losing in order to and keep a nice balance of electrolytes in your body. A sports drink such as Gatorade or Vitamin Water can help achieve this. For organic options, check out NOOMA Organic Electrolyte Sports Drink or Roar Organic. FYI, we don’t get any payment for promoting these brands; we just love sharing options. (Of course, be sure to talk with your doctor about drinking sports drinks or excessive amounts of water if you have any medical conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or are on any special diet or fluid restrictions, as these conditions can require a delicate balance of salts and minerals in your body.)
  7. Keeping hydrated is harder when drinking sugary drinks, caffeine and alcohol, so consider limiting these types of drinks on especially hot and humid days

If you notice that your symptoms last longer than one hour, you are vomiting, symptoms are worsening, or don’t improve, seek medical attention right away. Don’t hesitate to chat with a nurse first if you are concerned about your symptoms. Our experts are here to help! Heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, which can be life threatening, so don’t hesitate to seek medical attention.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness and is considered a medical emergency. Heat stroke occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature: your temperature rises rapidly, your sweating mechanism fails, and your body is unable to cool down. In the case of heat stroke, your body temperature may rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. The body just can’t cool down. Heat stroke can cause death or permanent disability if emergency treatment is not provided. Call 911 right away if you are worried you have heat stroke.

Signs of heat stroke include:

  • An extremely high body temperature (above 103°F, different than temp from fever)
  • Red, hot, and dry skin (no sweating)
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness (passing out)

Heat stroke is an emergency. Call 911 right away for medical assistance if you suspect heat stroke. While you wait for help, the CDC recommends these steps to cool the victim 

  • Get the victim to a shady area
  • Cool the victim rapidly, using whatever methods you can. For example, immerse them in a tub of cool water, place them in a cool shower, spray them with cool water from a garden hose, sponge them with cool water, or if the humidity is low, wrap them in a cool, wet sheet and fan them vigorously.
  • Monitor body temperature and continue cooling efforts until the body temperature drops to 101-102°F
  • If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call the hospital emergency room for further instructions
  • Do not give the victim anything to drink 

Stay safe in the sun!

Make a plan for the day and set timers for taking breaks from the sun, rehydrating and putting on sunscreen. It’s easy to forget (or put off) these things but easier with a reminder in place. Many of us love the hot weather, but your body will need to be able to cool off especially in extreme or prolonged heat. Never leave a child or elderly person in a hot car and don’t forget to check on your neighbors when the weather is very hot. And remember, Nurse-1-1 is always here to help. Chat with us about your symptoms, and tag us in your summer fun in the sun! We love to know what our friends are up to!

Kim Liner, PNP

Nurse-1-1 Chief Nurse Practitioner

The opinions expressed in Nurse-1-1 Health Center Blogs are solely opinions of the writer. Other than information received directly by you from your personal provider, the health center blog should not be considered medical advice. Read more.