Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are both heat-related illnesses which occur when there is a problem with the body’s cooling system. Heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke if a timely treatment is not provided. Heat stroke is more serious when compared to heat exhaustion. It can damage the muscles, kidneys, heart, or brain and can be life-threatening without a proper management.
Both heat stroke and heat exhaustion begin with muscle cramps. However, the other symptoms may be different for both the conditions.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- General weakness
- Profuse sweating
- Weak but rapid heart rate
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pale, cold and clammy skin
- Fainting (in some cases)
Contact the doctor immediately if nausea or vomiting is experienced.
Symptoms of heat stroke include:
- Increase in the body temperature above 103°F
- Strong and rapid heart rate
- Altered consciousness or a loss of consciousness
- Hot, red, dry or moist skin
Call for immediate medical help if heat stroke is suspected.
Usually, when the body is exposed to high temperatures or heat waves such as during summers, it produces sweat which evaporates and cools down the body. This is possible when there are adequate fluids in the body to produce sweat and air circulates well across the skin to evaporate the sweat. But when the cooling system of the body cannot compensate the excess heat by generating sweat, it can lead to heat exhaustion.
The other causes of heat exhaustion include:
- Strenuous exercise or work
- Heavy or tight fitting clothing
- Consumption of alcohol
Heat exhaustion experienced for a prolonged period can result in heat stroke. Heat stroke occurs when the cooling system of body does not work anymore and causes a dangerously high body temperature. It is more likely to have a heat stroke during hot climatic conditions.
Anyone can develop heat exhaustion and heat stroke. However, the following factors make it is more likely to develop these heat-related illnesses:
- Obesity which involves the risk of retention of more heat
- Sudden changes in the surrounding temperature
- Use of certain prescription medicines for high blood pressure or heart-related conditions
- Age below 4 years and above 65 years
- Long-term health conditions such as diabetes, certain lung and heart problems
The doctor can get a clue of heat exhaustion or heat stroke from the symptoms of the patient. However, to confirm the condition and look for complications certain laboratory tests as mentioned below may be necessary:
- Urine tests to detect signs of dehydration such as dark yellow color
- Blood tests to detect the levels of sodium and potassium to check for dehydration
- Tests to check the kidney function
- Muscle function tests
- Imaging tests such as x-rays to detect damage of any internal organs
Treatment should be started soon as the signs of heat exhaustion are noticed.
The doctor might place the patient in cold water tub or pack in special ice wraps to quickly bring down the temperature. If this treatment results in shivering, then medications may be given to stop shivering.
When the symptoms of heat exhaustion are experienced, follow the below steps which help in recovery usually within 30 minutes:
- Find a cool place, if outside or turn on the air conditioner, if indoors
- Drink plenty of fluids along with water to stay hydrated. Sports drinks which contain adequate amounts of electrolytes may be a good choice when there is excess sweating.
The following measures can reduce the risk of developing heat exhaustion and heat stroke:
- Avoid alcohol or caffeinated drinks.
- Avoid hot sun and take showers with cool water on hot days.
- Keep the environment cool by closing the doors and windows during day time, turning on the electric fans, growing plants in the house, etc.
- Stop performing strenuous activities during hot climates.
- Do not stay or leave children in stationary cars.