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Understanding Heat-Related Illness

Posted on July 17, 2020

heat related illnessesExperts state that prolonged or intense exposure to hot temperatures can cause heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke. As your body works to cool itself in warmer temperatures, blood rushes to the surface of your skin. As a result, less blood reaches your brain, muscles and other organs. This can interfere with both your physical strength and your mental capacity, leading, in some cases, to serious danger.

Heat illness can strike virtually anyone. But the elderly, obese persons and chronic alcoholics are at greater risk, as are individuals taking certain drugs, such as antihistamines or antipsychotic medications. High humidity also increases the risk of heat illness because it interferes with the evaporation of sweat – your body’s way of cooling itself.

Heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke all occur when your body cannot cool itself adequately. But each is slightly different.

Heat cramps

Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat illness and consist of painful muscle cramps and spasms that occur during or after intense exercise and sweating in high heat. This deficiency, accompanied by the loss of other essential nutrients such as potassium and magnesium, typically occurs during heavy exertion.

Heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps and results from a loss of water and salt in the body. It occurs in conditions of extreme heat and excessive sweating without adequate fluid and salt replacement. Heat exhaustion occurs
when the body is unable to cool itself properly and, if left untreated, can progress to heat stroke. Individuals who have heart problems or are on low-sodium diets may be particularly susceptible to heat exhaustion.

Treat heat exhaustion by moving to a cool place to rest, placing cool cloths directly on the skin, and by consuming cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar. If no improvement or unable to take fluids, seek emergency treatment immediately.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke, the most severe form of heat illness, occurs when the body’s heat-regulating system is overwhelmed by excessive heat. It is a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate medical attention. Heat stroke occurs when the body suffers from long, intense exposure to heat and loses its ability to cool itself. In prolonged, extreme heat, the part of
the brain that normally regulates body temperature malfunctions. This decreases the body’s ability to sweat and, therefore, cool down.

If you suspect heat stroke you should immediately call 911 or your local emergency medical service. Symptoms of heat
stroke include warm, dry skin, high fever (usually over 104° F), rapid heart rate, nausea and vomiting, headache and fatigue.


If you or someone you know is suffering from a heat-related illness, seek treatment from your primary care physician or the emergency department at LeConte Medical Center