Sweating in the summer sun is one thing, overheating is another. According to an expert at Baylor College of Medicine, the main concern with heat exhaustion is that it can lead to heat stroke if symptoms are ignored.
Heat exhaustion occurs when there is a moderate increase in body temperature, while heat stroke is a step further – the body can no longer control sweat and excess heat so body temperature rises even higher. Heat stroke can become fatal if not treated immediately.
“Heat stroke occurs when the core temperature of the body reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit and changes in our central nervous system take place such as disorientation, confusion, behavioral or emotional changes or altered mental status,” said Isabel Valdez, physician assistant and assistant professor of general internal medicine at Baylor. “In some case, seizures or comas can also occur. Vital internal organs like the brain, liver and kidneys can be damaged by heat stroke.”
The best way to prevent heat stroke is by first recognizing the signs of heat exhaustion, which include sweating, rapid heart rate, lightheadedness, headache, low blood pressure and muscle cramps.
Valdez adds that symptoms like nausea, vomiting or diarrhea should not be ignored. “Not only are these signs of heat exhaustion, but they can also make it difficult to recover from heat exhaustion when you are trying to rehydrate,” she said.
If heat exhaustion is suspected, Valdez advises to find a place to rest, drink water and move to a cooler environment. If a person becomes confused and has an elevated body temperature of greater than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, they should be taken to the emergency room.
While a quick reaction is good, prevention is better. The first way to prevent heat exhaustion is to hydrate. Valdez recommends drinking water early on in the day and during your time in the heat.
Sports drinks also are an option to replace electrolytes that are lost in sweat but should be supplemented with water.
“Fluids with electrolytes are very helpful but not necessary,” Valdez said. “If you are going to be outdoors for extended periods, acclimatize yourself to the heat by spending only a few hours outdoors at first and adding more time in the outdoors over a span of two weeks.”
It is also important to be aware of your environment. High humidity may contribute to heat exhaustion, so do not forget to wear cool clothing and take breaks from the heat.
Those most at risk for heat exhaustion include children, the elderly, those who are overweight and young athletes, especially football players who wear heavy equipment.
Valdez adds that some common over-the-counter and prescription medications such as antihistamines, diuretics, anticonvulsants and anti-depressants also may increase the risk of heat exhaustion.
“If you have to work or train in the outdoors and are concerned for the risk of heat exhaustion, reach out to your medical provider to review your medications and create a plan that suits your needs to keep you healthy during the heat,” Valdez said.