American Hospital Blog

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion, a condition causing heavy sweating and a rapid pulse, occurs due to the body's overheating. This heat-related state causes heat cramps in its mildest nature to heatstroke - a severe life-threatening condition. Exposure to high temperatures, high humidity, and strenuous physical activity can lead to heat exhaustion, resulting in heat stroke in extreme cases.

Understand the symptoms

The common signs of heat exhaustion may include heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, moist skin with goosebumps during the heat. You may also have a weak and rapid pulse, muscle cramps, nausea and headaches.

Consult the doctor

When you experience heat exhaustion, stop all activity and rest, drink cold water or sports drinks, and move to a cooler temperature area to relax your body away from heat. Visit the doctor when signs worsen, or your condition does not improve within one hour.

When someone shows the signs of heat exhaustion, get immediate medical attention, especially when he is confused or agitated, loses consciousness, or cannot drink. Urgent medical attention is needed to cool the body if the body's temperature touches 104 F (40 C) or higher.

Know the causes

The body's heat and environmental heat is the core temperature or the body's internal temperature. Your body must sustain its core temperature, approximately 98.6 F (37 C), regulating the heat gain in warm weather and heat loss in cold weather from the environmental conditions.

The body's inability to cool itself, managing environmental changes leads to heat issues.
In warmer seasons, the body cools itself with sweating, wherein evaporation of sweat regulates the body temperatures. However, with strenuous exercises or overexertion in warm, humid weather, the body is less capable of cooling it adequately.

In such cases, it can lead to developing heat cramps, the mildest form of heat-related illness, which includes heavy sweating, fatigue, thirst and muscle cramps. Proper care can prevent heat cramps from advancing to heat exhaustion. You must drink fluids or sports drinks containing electrolytes (Gatorade, Powerade, others) and get into cooler temperatures, like an air-conditioned or shaded area, and take a rest.

The other factors that trigger heat exhaustion are dehydration that lessens the body's capacity to sweat and maintain a normal temperature. Consuming alcohol also affects the body in regulating its temperature or wearing clothing that doesn't let sweat evaporate quickly.

Recognize the risk

  • Heat exhaustion can affect anyone, but people with sensitivity to heat are more prone to risks.
  • Young age or old age. Infants and children below four years are prone to risk as their body's capability to regulate its temperature is not fully developed. Also, adults over 65 years are at higher risk of heat exhaustion as their capacity to regulate body temperature is reduced by illness, medications or other factors in older adults.
  • Drugs. Some medications can affect the body's ability to stay hydrated or respond competently to heat. These include medications used to treat high blood pressure, reduce allergy symptoms (antihistamines) and heart problems (beta-blockers, diuretics). Also, the drugs used to reduce psychiatric symptoms like delusions (antipsychotics) or calm you (tranquilizers).
  • Obesity. Overweight people are more likely to get affected by heat exhaustion due to the body's reduced capability to regulate its temperature, resulting in retaining more heat.
  • Sudden temperature changes. The risk has risen when your body is not used to the heat, and you travel to a warm climate from a cold area or live in a place with an early heatwave, and the body is not prepared to deal with it.
  • A high heat index. When the outdoor temperature and humidity are high [91 F (33 C) or higher], the sweat can't evaporate quickly, causing the body to cool, making people prone to heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Associated complexities

Heat exhaustion, when untreated, can lead to heatstroke that is a life-threatening condition causing the core body temperature to reach 104 F (40 C) or higher. This state requires immediate medical attention to limit permanent damage to the brain and other vital organs, resulting in death.

Measures for prevention

Take the following precautions to limit heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses:

  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing that allows the body to cool properly.
  • Protect yourself against sunburn with a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses and a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
  • Drink lots of fluids as staying hydrated assists the body to sweat and maintain a normal body temperature.
  • Take extra care when using certain medications that can affect your body's ability to stay hydrated and dissipate heat.
  • Do not allow anyone to sit in a parked car, as the temperature in the vehicle rises 20 degrees Fahrenheit (over 11 C) in 10 minutes.
  • Take a relaxed approach in warm weather, avoid strenuous activity in hot climates, drink fluids, and frequently rest in a cool spot. Reschedule workout or physical labor for cooler parts of the day, like early morning or evening. Also, limit your time spent working or exercising in heat until the body gets adjusted to it.

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