Heat Exhaustion Symptoms and Treatment

Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment

Young woman holding water bottle against forehead
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Heat exhaustion is caused by an increase in core body temperature often coupled with fluid loss (dehydration). It's important to recognize heat exhaustion early and seek treatment as quickly as possible. It does not need to be hot outside for heat exhaustion to occur. Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke if not treated in time.

Overview

When your body's internal temperature rises, its normal response is to sweat and be cooled by evaporation.

But if the humidity is high so sweat won't evaporate, or you are already dehydrated, you may not be able to cool your internal temperature fast enough and your core temperature rises. Heat exhaustion is a less severe condition of heat illness.

Causes

Everyone is at risk of heat exhaustion if they are in a hot environment, especially if they are not replacing the fluid and salt lost in sweat. These groups have a greater risk:

  • Infants and children from ages 0 to 4.
  • Elderly adults.
  • Obese people
  • People who have high blood pressure
  • People working or exercising in the heat, especially when the heat index is 90 F or more.

Signs and Symptoms

Treatment

If you recognize that you are having the early symptoms of heat exhaustion, use these self-care tips immediately:

  • Get into a cooler environment, preferably air-conditioned.
  • Drink cool beverages, which will help cool you down internally. However, do not drink alcoholic beverages. An electrolyte-replacement sports drink is often a good choice if you have been sweating, as you are losing salt as well as fluids.
  • Sponge yourself with cool water. People exercising or playing sports will often pour cold water on their head or soak a towel in cold water to apply to their necks. If available, take a cool shower.
  • Change into lightweight clothing that will allow perspiration to evaporate.

If you are assisting someone you believe has heat exhaustion, take these steps:

  • Stay safe. If the environment is hot enough for the victim to get overheated, then it's hot enough for the rescuers. Follow universal precautions and wear personal protective equipment if you have it.
  • Make sure the person with heat exhaustion symptoms has an airway and is breathing. Follow the ABC's of first aid.
  • Move the person to a cooler environment immediately. Shade is better than the sun, air conditioning is better than outside, etc. The cooler the better.
  • Loosen or remove the person's clothing to encourage heat loss.
  • If the person is conscious and able to follow commands, give him cool, nonalcoholic fluids to drink to rehydrate.

When to see the doctor:

  • If your symptoms or that of the person you are assisting get worse or last longer than an hour, get medical help at an urgent care clinic or emergency room.

Signs of a medical emergency:

  • If the person is unable to follow commands (unconscious) or is vomiting, call 911 immediately.
  • If the person has stopped sweating or is unconscious, he should be treated for heat stroke. Heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke. This can lead to death or permanent disability and you should get emergency medical help.

    Source:

    Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) About Extreme Heat. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/faq.html.

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