How to Recognize the Early Warning Signs of Heat Stroke (and Everything You Can Do to Prevent It)

It’s much harder to exercise or hang around outdoors when temperatures climb into the 90s and beyond — but way too tempting to resist. While you don’t have to hide inside with the air conditioning on full blast, staying outside when it’s hot can become dangerous — even deadly — if you aren’t prepared for it.

Heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke occur when your body overheats, either due to exposure to hot weather or intense physical activity. Sitting in hot cars without air conditioning, especially for children, is a common cause of heat stroke — and one of the most dangerous.

Learn the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke, the early warning signs of heat-related sickness, what to do if you start experiencing symptoms, and how to protect yourself from the extreme heat.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke | Puhhha/iStock/Getty Images

What does heat exhaustion look like?

Heat exhaustion — the heat-related illness that can progress into heat stroke if untreated — isn’t as severe as full-blown heat stroke. It’s not considered a medical emergency unless symptoms last more than an hour or your symptoms worsen.

Heat exhaustion symptoms include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Pale, cold, and clammy skin
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting.

Sunburn can make it more difficult for your body to cool itself off when it gets too hot. For this and other reasons, spending too much time in the heat without protection can cause your symptoms to worsen, bringing on the much more worrisome condition called heat stroke.

Symptoms of heat stroke

Unlike heat exhaustion, heat stroke is considered a medical emergency. It can result in harmful dehydration and dangerously high body temperature, organ failure, and death.

Signs of heat stroke include:

  • Body temperature of 103 F or higher
  • Confusion
  • Hot, red, dry, or damp skin
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Fast, strong pulse
  • Fainting.

If someone you know is experiencing the above symptoms, call 911. Move the individual to a cool place, try to cool them down with cold towels or a cold bath, and don’t give them anything to drink.

The same way you can avoid dehydration by drinking plenty of fluids, you can avoid negative reactions to the heat if you want to spend time outside when temperatures rise.

Flip flops

Flip flops | Eternalcreative/iStock/Getty Images

How to prevent heat stroke and related illnesses

Heat stroke is a common and serious medical condition, but you can prevent it. It’s OK to spend time outdoors when it’s hot out, but you shouldn’t do so without taking a few precautions.

During exposure to hot weather, make sure to:

  • Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothes
  • Protect yourself against sunburn (wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen)
  • Stay hydrated
  • Don’t leave anyone in a parked car on a hot day
  • If you aren’t used to the heat, limit your time outdoors and avoid working or exercising in hot weather until you can better tolerate it.

Also be aware of your risk. Children, adults over the age of 65, people with certain chronic diseases, and those who take blood pressure medications, diuretics, and antidepressants are at an increased risk of developing heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Certain conditions and medications affect your body’s ability to stay hydrated, especially when trying to cope with extreme heat during the hottest part of the year.

Have fun out there. Stay safe, keep refilling your water bottle, and always put on suncreen more often than you think you need to. Your body will thank you.

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