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The Signs of Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion

Summer is one of the most accommodating seasons for outdoor activities. While it certainly can be a great deal of fun, we also have to be safe while we’re enjoying whatever it is we’re enjoying. We’ve previously covered some [major summer safety tips[( “Summer Safety Tips for Seniors”) related to bugs, the weather, and dehydration, but perhaps the greatest threat to your health is the heat. Heat has lead to the most weather-related fatalities in the United States over the last 30 years!

The dangers of a hot day can sneak up on your if you’re not careful and can even potentially be fatal. Two extremely dangerous heat-related conditions are heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Preventing both is critical to your health, and knowing the telltale signs of them could save you this summer!

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is one of three conditions (heat cramps being the mildest and heatstroke being the worst) that is caused by exposure to high heat. There are two types of heat exhaustion dehydration and salt depletion. If you don’t remedy the situation, heat exhaustion can become serious enough that you may need immediate medical attention, especially if certain symptoms arise.


One of the reasons heat exhaustion can be so difficult to spot is because the symptoms can be mild and point to a few different conditions. The symptoms of heat exhaustion are:

  • Headache
  • Muscle or abdominal cramps
  • Pale skin
  • Heavy sweating
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Fainting

What Should You Do?

If you notice that you have developed a mild case of heat exhaustion (e.g., headache, dark-colored urine), you may be able to treat your symptoms at home. When you first start noticing general symptoms of heat exhaustion, stop what you’re doing and start cooling down immediately. Head inside, jump in the pool, or have a cool, hydrating drink. If your symptoms worsen or last for over an hour, you should get medical help immediately. You should also contact emergency medical services if you experience more serious symptoms (e.g., vomiting, fainting).


Heatstroke is the most severe heat-related malady and requires immediate medical attention. Sometimes called “sunstroke,” heatstroke can be fatal or cause brain damage, if severe enough. There are two types of heatstroke — exertional heatstroke and non-exertional heatstroke. Exertional heatstroke refers to sunstroke caused by physical activity in a hot environment; non-exertional is more often found in those with diminished abilities to regulate their body temperature, like seniors, those with certain medical conditions, and babies. This could be the result of a medical issue or inability to control their environment (e.g., someone in a home without air conditioning or someone stuck inside a hot car).


Many of the symptoms that point toward heatstroke are also symptoms of heat exhaustion; however, with heatstroke, they are much more severe. These symptoms may include:

  • An internal temperature of 104° or more
  • An intense, throbbing headache
  • Muscle weakness or cramps
  • Hot, dry, red skin
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat with a weak or strong pulse
  • Shallow, quickened breathing
  • Lack of sweating
  • Dizziness

There are also a number of neurological symptoms that worryingly point toward an escalating problem. These would include:

  • Seizures
  • Odd changes in behavior
  • Irritability
  • Delusions or hallucinations
  • Fainting
  • Coma

What Should You Do?

If you or someone you know is showing symptoms of a heatstroke, call 9-1-1 immediately. While you may be able to administer some degree of first aid, medical professionals will be needed to fully treat the issue. Once you have called emergency medical services, get the sufferer to a colder area quickly (but safely). From here, do what you can to lower their body temperature. The 9-1-1 professional will likely be instructing you on first aid measures you can take while you await the ambulance. Some of the treatment options may include things like:

  • Apply a cool, damp cloth to the skin
  • Immerse the individual in a cool (but not ice-cold) shower or bath
  • Try an ice bath, if the sufferer is young
  • Bring them into a cool, air-conditioned area

Interestingly, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention explicitly states to not give the individual anything to drink. The reasoning for this may have to do with very cold water’s ability to cause stomach cramps and lower your body’s fluid absorption rate. That said, the Mayo Clinic believes drinking cool water for rehydration can be important, though states that you should avoid very cold water. In this case, talk to the 9-1-1 operator to decide whether you should be giving them cool fluids or not.

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Heatstroke and heat exhaustion can be very scary in the best of cases and fatal in the worst. This is why staying cool and hydrated in the summer are so important. To help yourself and others from potentially suffering from these two conditions, you need to be able to spot their signs early and react appropriately. If you’re dealing with heat exhaustion, you may be able to prevent it from becoming even worse. If it’s heatstroke, taking the right steps may even save a life.

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