According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), above-average temperatures or unusually humid weather kills more than 600 people in the United States each year.
As temperatures rise, it is important to know how to avoid heat-related illnesses. Learn about the symptoms and treatments of heatstroke and heat exhaustion below.
What are heatstroke and heat exhaustion?
These conditions both result from overexposure to extremely hot weather. However, only heatstroke can cause damage to the body’s systems.
Heatstroke, also called sunstroke, is the most serious heat-related illness. It occurs when the body’s temperature is 104ºF or higher, and it is a life-threatening medical emergency.
If not treated immediately, heatstroke can damage multiple organs and systems, including the:
- brain and nervous system
- circulatory system
- digestive tract
Heat exhaustion is less serious than heatstroke. Anyone who suspects that they have heat exhaustion should immediately rest and rehydrate. If symptoms do not improve, seek medical attention to prevent heatstroke.
Anyone who suspects that they have heat exhaustion should immediately take steps to cool down. These can include:
- moving to a shady location
- removing one or more articles of clothing
- resting out of the sun
- turning on a fan or the air conditioning
- running cool water over the skin or applying cool, wet towels to the body
- drinking fluids such as water and sports drinks
If a person vomits or feels nauseous, seek medical attention.
If a person exhibits any symptom of heatstroke, contact emergency services immediately. To treat it, a doctor may:
- apply ice packs to the neck, armpits, and groin
- spray cool mists
- support any injured organ systems
- use a specialized cooling blanket
- administer intravenous fluids that promote cooling and hydration
Certain factors can make a person more likely to experience heat exhaustion or heatstroke. These include:
- being overweight or obese
- having a significant disability
- having a sunburn
- being younger than 13 or older than 65
- using some prescription medications for heart conditions or high blood pressure, particularly diuretics
- experiencing sudden changes in temperature, such as by traveling from a cold to a hot climate
- spending time outdoors in extreme heat, or indoors without a way to cool down
When temperatures rise, it is important to know how to prevent heat-related illnesses. The goal is to keep the body cool.
The following strategies can help:
- staying indoors during the hottest part of the day
- trying to stay in the shade when outdoors
- drinking an extra 2–4 cups of water every hour while exposed to high temperatures
- taking frequent breaks when working or exercising outdoors on hot days
- wearing loose, light-colored clothing
- using cooler water for showers and baths
- wearing a wide-brimmed hat to shield the face from the sun
- avoiding drinks that dehydrate, including those with caffeine or alcohol
- wearing breathable fabrics like cotton, rather than synthetic blends
- spending part of the day in an air-conditioned place, such as a mall, library, or movie theater
No one should remain alone in a parked car in extremely hot weather. Doing so could be especially dangerous for children and people aged 65 and older.
With appropriate, timely treatment, a person can fully recover from heat-related illnesses.
Recognizing symptoms of heat exhaustion and taking steps to cool down can prevent the condition from developing into heatstroke.
If left untreated, heatstroke can result in serious complications or death. When a person receives the right treatment early enough, they can fully recover from heatstroke.
Even on the hottest days, these illnesses can usually be prevented by planning and taking precautions.
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