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Summer Safety: Knowing the difference between heat exhaustion and heatstroke could save a life

Posted August 02, 2021 by Lindsey Meade, MD

man helping woman cool off from too much heat

Summer often brings some much-needed fun in the sun. But as temperatures and humidity rise, so do the dangers of heat illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 600 people are killed by extreme heat every year in this country.

Infants and people aged 65 or older, especially those with chronic conditions, are most at risk for heat illness. However, it can affect anyone, even young athletes and those in good physical condition.

The good news is with proper precautions, most heat illnesses can be prevented. The best way to prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke is to stay hydrated and limit your time in the sun. Additional precautions you can take, include:

  • Wear lightweight, loose and light-colored clothing.
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above and wear a wide-brimmed hat. Sunburn can increase your risk of heat illness.
  • Shift your time outdoors to the coolest times of the day
  • Take frequent breaks from the heat to cool yourself down and rehydrate
  • Avoid fluids with caffeine or alcohol. Instead, drink water, fruit or vegetable juices. You may need a sports drink with electrolytes to replenish your body’s salt at the hottest times of the day.
  • To help keep you and your family safe this summer, Summa Health differentiates between heat exhaustion and heatstroke. It’s important to recognize the early warning signs and act on them quickly. Knowing the difference could save a life.

    Heat exhaustion

    Heat exhaustion occurs when the body overheats because it has lost the ability to cool itself down. Sweat is your body’s natural way to cool you down, but if you’re dehydrated or exercising too strenuously, your body may not be able to produce enough sweat.

    Early warning signs for heat exhaustion include nausea, light-headedness, fatigue, muscle cramping, weakness and dizziness.

    At the first sign of trouble, it’s important to act quickly to cool your body, including:

  • Go inside, preferably to an air-conditioned building
  • Take a cold shower or use a cold compress
  • Drink plenty of fluids, such as water or a sports drink
  • Remove tight or extra layers of clothes
  • If you experience heat exhaustion for an extended period of time, it can lead to heatstroke. Early intervention is crucial to stop it from progressing.


    Heatstroke occurs when your body temperature rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. It’s the most serious form of heat illness and unlike heat exhaustion, heatstroke requires immediate medical attention.

    If left untreated, heatstroke can cause damage to your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. The damage worsens the longer treatment is delayed and can increase your risk of serious complications or even death.

    Symptoms of heatstroke include throbbing headache, confusion or disorientation, lack of sweating (dry skin), rapid heart rate, rapid, shallow breathing, nausea or vomiting, and fainting.

    If you think you or a loved one is experiencing heatstroke, call 9-1-1 immediately and then take the following steps:

  • Move the person to a cooler, shady place or preferably to an air-conditioned building, if possible.
  • Use cold compresses on his neck, back or armpits or put the individual in a cool tub to lower their body temperature.
  • Fan air over him while misting the person with cool water or a garden hose
  • Do not give the individual fluids if they are unconscious.
  • On the hottest days of summer, it’s a good idea to check up on family and friends who are at risk for heat illness. By watching out for each other, we can hopefully stop heat illness before it even begins.


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    If your situation is an emergency, call 911.