Heat stroke and heat exhaustion: Signs, symptoms, and treatment

June 11, 2021

Learn how to spot, avoid, and treat heat stroke and heat exhaustion

A silhouette of a man showing signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion

A Texas summer is defined by lakes, rivers, barbecue, and of course, the heat. While the warm days of summer are often a welcome reprieve from the chilly breezes and icy storms that take place throughout the winter, it's important to keep in mind that the oppressive heat that settles over Texas during the peak of the day is often very dangerous.

Regardless of what your summer has in store, if you plan to spend time outdoors, you'll want to be aware of the signs, symptoms, and treatments of heat stroke and heat exhaustion.  

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke is a medical condition that occurs when the body is overheated. A person who is suffering from heat stroke needs medical attention quickly, because this condition can lead to serious complications, such as heart, brain, kidney or muscle damage.

Heat stroke is considered to be the most serious form of heat-related illness, and people are most at risk of developing heat stroke during the summer. Heat stroke can occur quickly when a person is exerting themselves outdoors during the peak hours of the day. The symptoms of heat stroke often set in when a person's body temperature reaches 104 degrees, and delayed treatment can increase the risk of serious complications.

What are the common symptoms of heat stroke?

While heat stroke occurs when the body temperature reaches 104 degrees and is often exacerbated when a person is dehydrated, you may not recognize this as one of the first symptoms. If you are suffering from heat stroke, these are a few of the most common symptoms that you may experience:
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Dry skin
  • Inability to sweat
  • Severe headache
  • Muscle cramps
  • Rapid heart rate or heart palpitations
  • Loss of breath or rapid, shallow breathing
  • Loss of consciousness or fainting
The symptoms of heat stroke will vary from person to person, and may range in severity based on the amount of time the individual has been suffering from heat stroke. A person may only experience one symptom while another may experience three or four simultaneously, which is why it's important to be aware of all symptoms and to act quickly if you notice even one in a person who has had prolonged exposure to the Texas heat.

What causes heat stroke?

Heat stroke is caused by prolonged exposure to heat, and typically occurs outside during the summer months, but can happen any time it is hot and sunny. Other contributing factors include strenuous outdoor activity, excess exposure to direct sunlight, or spending too much time in a hot, humid environment without adequate rest or hydration. Given the intensity of the sun in Texas and the high temperatures that occur throughout the state during the summer, heat stroke is a real risk for people of all ages. 

Heat stroke is the most serious form of heat-related illness, and a person typically will experience heat exhaustion symptoms first, although this is not always the case. Certain people may be at higher risk for developing heat stroke, such as the elderly, individuals with certain health conditions or illnesses, such as respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, and those who have previously suffered from a heat stroke. Additionally, substances, such as certain medications or excess alcohol, can increase your risk. 

What is the best way to prevent and treat heat stroke?

While the risks of heat stroke are dangerous and real, it is a fairly preventable condition if you take precautions that give your body the ability to adequately dissipate heat. Here are a few tips to help you prevent heat stroke:
  • Choose appropriate clothing for being outdoors. Lightweight clothing that fits loosely is the best option. Try to choose clothes that are lighter colors as well.
  • Wear sunscreen and reapply it throughout the day. If you get a sunburn, your body will be at a higher risk for overheating.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of water on a regular basis when you are going to be outside for a prolonged period of time.
  • Take frequent breaks. Go inside and cool off for a snack break, or sit under the shade of a tree and rest.
  • Be mindful of medications. If you take any medications regularly, make sure you consult a pharmacist or your physician to find out if they put you at a higher risk for heat stroke, or otherwise make it difficult for your body to cool down.
When it comes to treating heat stroke, it's important to know that home remedies are not enough on their own. Should the symptoms arise, or if someone you know starts to show the signs of heat stroke, call emergency medical services immediately. 

As you wait for help to arrive, get the victim out of the sun and do your best to bring their body temperature down. Remove excess clothing, wet their skin and fan them down, use cool cloths, place them in a cool shower or bath, and/or apply packs of ice to armpits, groin, neck, and back.

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is a form of heat-related illness that occurs when a person has been exposed to high temperatures and has not stayed hydrated. Heat exhaustion is typically a more minor form of heat injury, but can be dangerous in its own right and can quickly lead to heat stroke.

What are the signs of heat exhaustion?

By being aware of the signs of heat exhaustion, you can address this heat-related illness quickly and prevent heat stroke from setting in. These are a few of the most common symptoms of heat exhaustion:
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Excessive sweating or cold, clammy skin
  • Muscle or body cramps
  • Dark-colored urine
A person may have one or more symptoms of heat exhaustion, and the severity of the symptoms can vary based on their age, risk factors and the amount of exposure they have had to the heat.

What are the top causes of heat exhaustion?

There are two general types of heat exhaustion: Water depletion and salt depletion. When you are experiencing water depletion that leads to heat exhaustion, you may suffer from symptoms such as headache, thirst or general weakness. When you are experiencing salt depletion that leads to heat exhaustion, your symptoms can include dizziness, cramps or nausea. Both of these types of heat exhaustion are caused by prolonged exposure to the heat and dehydration. The risk of heat exhaustion increases when you are doing physical activities outside that may be strenuous on the body, such as completing manual labor or participating in an outdoor sport during the peak hours of the day.

How can you prevent and treat heat exhaustion?

There are several steps that you can take in order to prevent heat exhaustion from taking hold, including:
  • Limit sun exposure. Plan outdoor activities in the morning or late evening in order to minimize the amount of time you spend outside during the hottest part of the day.
  • Staying hydrated. You should be drinking water frequently and at regular intervals. Small sips more frequently will be better than guzzling a significant amount of water every couple of hours.
  • Avoid certain drinks. Caffeine, alcohol, and sugar in beverages can all work to dehydrate you and increase your risk of heat exhaustion. 
If you do begin to notice the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, you should treat it immediately. This can prevent heat stroke from occurring. The best ways to treat heat exhaustion include:
  • Drinking refreshing liquid, such as water or a hydrating sports drink to replace lost salt. Be cautious, however, because many sports drinks contain excessive amounts of sugar.
  • Resting in a cooler spot. The best option is to go indoors in the air conditioning, but if that's not possible, use natural shade to cool your body temperature down.
  • Remove any clothing layers that may be increasing your body temperature. Even removing socks can help you cool off your body.
  • Shower, bathe, or take a sponge bath to wet and cool your body. 
  • Apply a cold compress or ice pack to your neck, back, or groin area. These areas have high concentrations of blood and will help cool your body quickly. 
If these treatments don't alleviate the symptoms after 15 minutes, you could be suffering from heat stroke, and emergency medical attention is required. 

What is the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke?

The technical difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke has to do with your body's internal temperature. When your core temperature reaches 104 degrees or more, it is considered a heat stroke.

Both heat exhaustion and heat strokes are serious heat-related illnesses, and may be difficult to distinguish as the signs and symptoms often overlap. That's why it is so important to pay close attention to someone showing any of the signs or symptoms we've discussed.

Generally, someone suffering from heat exhaustion will be nauseous, fatigued, dizzy or light-headed, and may have cold-clammy skin. Cramping is also often associated with heat exhaustion. After taking steps to cool down, such as finding shade, moving indoors, or using a cold compress, the individual should begin to recover. 

However, if you are unable to cool them down, if they are hot but not sweating, show signs of confusion or delirium, or lose consciousness, these constitute a life-threatening emergency and 911 should be contacted immediately. 

By being aware of the signs and symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion and by staying vigilant on the hottest days, you can have a safe and enjoyable Texas summer! 

A bright Texas summer sun which can cause heat stroke and heat exhaustion

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by Geoff Ullrich

About the Author

Geoff Ullrich is a writer and Content Marketing Specialist at Germania Insurance.