The Difference Between Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

 

Diane's mother

My mother on a warm summer day

Summer has arrived in Maine! What fabulous weather we had this weekend. Because we’re bound to get some really hot days this summer, I decided a refresher course in heat-related illnesses might be a good idea. Sometimes they can sneak up on you, like when you forget to put on sunscreen or lose track of the time at the beach. Elderly people —  my 87-year-old mother who insists on wearing a heavy sweater on an 80 degree day for instance — are especially susceptible to heat stroke or dehydration.

Here’s a rundown of heat illnesses, their symptoms and what to do, courtesy of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention (Maine CDC):

HEAT STROKE

  • hot, dry, red skin (no sweating)
  • rapid pulse
  • high body temperature (≥ 105 F)
  • headache
  • loss of alertness
  • confusion
  • rapid and shallow breathing
  • unconsciousness or coma

What to do: Call 911 immediately. Cool the person rapidly by moving them to a shady or cooler area; applying cool water or ice to the head, neck, armpits and groin area; fanning; and loosening their clothing

HEAT EXHAUSTION

  • heavy sweating
  • fainting
  • vomiting
  • cold, pale and clammy skin
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • nausea
  • weakness

What to do: Move the person to a cool place, have them drink fluids and rest, loosen their clothes, and cool them off with water or wet cloths. Heat exhaustion can quickly lead to heat stroke. If symptoms worsen or do not improve, get medical help.

HEAT CRAMPS

  • Muscle cramps in the abdominal area or arms and legs that are often accompanied by heavy sweating and mild nausea.

What to do: Move the person to a cool place to rest and apply firm pressure to the cramping muscle. Gently stretch the cramped muscle, hold it for 20 seconds and then gently massage it. Have the person drink some cool beverages, such as water or a sports drink. Get medical help if there is no improvement or if the person has underlying medical problems.

DEHYDRATION

  • Dehydration is caused by excessive loss of water and salts from the body due to illness or from prolonged exposure to heat.
  • Severe dehydration can easily become a life-threatening condition for infants and the elderly.
  • Signs of dehydration include thirst, dry skin, fatigue, light-headedness, confusion, dry mouth, increased heart rate, increased breathing rate, and less frequent urination.

What to do: Move the person to a cool and dry place. Have the person lie down and rest, and drink water, juice, or sports drinks. Monitor the person – especially children and the elderly.

SUNBURN

  • Skin that is red, painful and warm after sun exposure.

What to do: Get medical help if the sunburn affects an infant or if there is fever, fluid-filled blisters or severe pain. Otherwise, apply cold compresses or immerse the burned skin in cool water, apply moisturizing lotion to the burn.

HEAT RASH

  • A rash that looks like a red cluster of pimples or small blisters, usually in the neck and upper chest or in body creases. Most common in young children.

What to do: Move the person to a cooler place and keep the affected area dry. Use talcum powder to increase comfort.

Drinking water hot sun

TIPS FOR PREVENTING A HEAT ILLNESS

  • Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing
  • Avoid dark-colored clothing, because dark colors absorb the heat
  • Drink lots of fluids — non-alcoholic
  • Check your medications — some make you more sensitive to sun and heat
  • Never leave a child, an elderly person, a pet, or any living creature in a parked car in hot weather. Ever.
  • Avoid strenuous activity. If you can’t, try to do it in early morning or evening. Take breaks and drink plenty of fluids.
  • Wear sunscreen
  • Read and remember the signs I listed at the beginning of this post.

I’m not your mother, but don’t forget to be careful when it’s hot outside!

Sign up for the Catching Health newsletter

Diane Atwood

About Diane Atwood

For more than 20 years, Diane Atwood was the health reporter on News Center 6. She's now a regular guest on the Morning Report. Before she became a health reporter, Diane was a radiation therapist/dosimetrist at Maine Medical Center. In 2000, she left the world of reporting to manage marketing and public relations for Mercy Hospital. In 2011, she decided to pursue a longtime dream of being a freelance writer and launched her award-winning blog Catching Health with Diane Atwood.