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Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke: Symptoms and Safeguards

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The sun and warmth of summer can be so seductive. They lure us to them, persuading us to spend hour upon hour playing sports, riding bikes, gardening, or doing any number of other outdoor activities. Summer can be good for our spirits but hard on our bodies, unless we remember to protect ourselves from heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Heat exhaustion happens when sweat evaporation doesn’t

Heat exhaustion develops when your body isn’t able to keep itself cool through its normal means, perspiration evaporation (also called evaporative cooling). In other words, you deplete the amount of water and electrolytes (salts) in your body by sweating and you don’t replenish them by drinking enough fluids to keep your body cooled to its normal temperature.

Heat exhaustion can occur whether you’re physically active or idle. You’re at higher risk for developing heat exhaustion if you’re in an environment that’s both hot and humid. The moist air keeps the sweat on your skin instead of allowing it to evaporate.

Although heat exhaustion isn’t life threatening, it can leave you feeling wrung out by the hot weather. Symptoms include

  • Faintness or dizziness

  • Headache

  • Muscle cramps

  • Nausea

  • Pale, cool, moist skin

  • Profuse sweating

  • Rapid heart beat

  • Vomiting

Heatstroke is heat exhaustion left unchecked

Heatstroke is the more serious of the two illnesses. If you don’t receive prompt medical attention, you could develop organ damage and even die. Two key differences between heatstroke and heat exhaustion are body temperature and brain function. Heatstroke occurs if your temperature climbs to 104 degrees or higher. In addition, your high fever can cause you to become confused, hallucinate, and have seizures. In more extreme cases, you can slip into a coma.

If you have heatstroke, you might also experience:

  • Shortness of breath or hyperventilation

  • Increased heart rate, pulse, and breathing

  • Flushed skin

  • Skin that’s hot and dry to the touch

People who have physical limitations that prevent them from keeping themselves cool are at greatest risk for developing heatstroke. Caretakers need to be especially vigilant to make sure infants, the elderly, and bedridden folks are well hydrated and in cool surroundings.

Heat illnesses can be prevented by being mindful of the four Ds

Keep yourself cool enough to avoid heat exhaustion and you won’t have to worry about its more severe form, heatstroke. Remember to focus on these four Ds when you’re planning your outdoor activities: do, dress, drink, and drugs.

  • Do your outdoor activities in the cooler parts of the day. Schedule your summer fun in the morning and early evening hours when the sun isn’t so strong. Try to spend as many midday hours as possible in the shade or in air conditioning. If you have to go out in the heat, take frequent breaks in the shade so your body can cool down.

  • Dress for air circulation and sun reflection. Pick clothing that is loose fitting and loosely woven so air will circulate underneath and dry your sweat. Wear very light colors because they absorb less heat than dark colors.

  • Drink a lot and often. Drink lots of water — or a sports beverage that specifically says it replaces electrolytes—before you venture outside. Then keep drinking every 15 to 20 minutes, even if you aren’t thirsty. You may not realize you need the extra fluids, but your body does. It has to make as much perspiration as necessary to keep you cool.

    Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages. They’ll dehydrate you.

  • Drugs can interfere with your body’s ability to maintain fluids. Blood pressure medications, antidepressants, and antihistamines are just some of the types of drugs that can affect hydration. Ask your doctor if any of the medications you’re taking put you at greater risk for heat-related illnesses.

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