Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke — Recognizing and Preventing Heat Illnesses

When the summer temperatures arrive, it’s hard to resist the urge to get outside and enjoy the good weather, family and friends. Mercy One Family doctor, Dr. Patrick Courtney says that with a little preparation, you can enjoy your summer and avoid heat-related illnesses.

“As a family doctor and scout leader, I’ve talked about it before and dealt with it at summer camp. But before we talk about disease, it’s important to know a little science about how our body’s temperature system is supposed to work,” says Dr. Courtney. “We have a temperature control area in our brainstem that reacts to excessive heat by sending more blood to our skin and causing sweating. The evaporation of sweat cools the skin, and since there are many blood in the skin, this cools the whole body. Heat-related illnesses occur when this system cannot keep up and you may feel heat exhaustion and heat stroke.”

Heat exhaustion is the failure of the heating system and heat stroke occurs after its failure. Heat exhaustion is:

  • Heat-related dehydration
  • Sometimes aggravated by physical exhaustion or sunburn
  • Includes profuse sweating
  • Weakness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • rapid heartbeat
  • Dark colored urine
  • Muscle cramps

Heat exhaustion is a warning sign to listen for.


  • Get out of the heat
  • Ideally find air conditioning or shade
  • Drink water or a sports drink slowly
  • Remove tight clothing or extra layers
  • Taking a cool shower or bath is one of the fastest ways to cool down the body
  • Outside, lie down with wet towels over your large blood vessels in your neck or armpits

Heat stroke occurs when the body’s heat control center breaks down and the body temperature rises above 104F. When the body temperature exceeds 102, the skin stops sweating, which starts a vicious cycle. This is the “blow” in heat stroke which has the following symptoms:

  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness
  • Possible seizures

“Heat stroke is a medical emergency and warrants a call to 911,” says Dr. Courtney. “The dispatcher will probably encourage a lot of the same things as in heat exhaustion in the meantime – but do not try to get a confused or unconscious person to drink.”

Preventing heat-related illnesses before they occur is the best choice. People employed in agriculture, construction and other outdoor jobs know the risks. There are often specific regulations to help people work safely. You can create your own set of basic “rules”, including:

  • Take care of your skin – it’s the blood vessels and sweat glands that do the work and if they’re damaged, they can’t function.
  • Apply sunscreen SPF 15 or higher
  • Wear loose, light-colored clothing
  • Wear a hat if you can
  • Stay in the shade when you can from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Stay hydrated with water
  • Do not drink soda or alcohol, it can dehydrate you
  • Try sports drinks as they are designed to replace salt and water lost through sweating
  • Drink even if you are not thirsty. When hydrated, your urine is clear to lightly colored
  • Listen to weather alerts and take dangerous heat warnings seriously
  • Reschedule or change your plans in dangerous heat conditions

Finally, be aware that certain medications you take may have an impact on your heat sensitivity. Certain chronic medical conditions and medications can make people more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, especially things that affect blood vessels and fluid balance in the body. Your doctor or pharmacist can answer these questions.

Respect the heat and have a great summer.

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