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Heat exhaustion vs. Heatstroke: Know the signs and differences

With the warmest and brightest days of summer upon us, we find ourselves spending more time in the sun. A lot of people are enjoying the outdoors for summer-related activities including exercising, swimming, biking or even playing Pokémon Go! No matter the activity, as the summer days are longer, it is hotter than any other time of the year. The heat can make an otherwise pleasant, outdoor activity uncomfortable. While being hot is normal, there are important signs and symptoms that could be something more. For a few people, that something more is a heat-related injury or illness.

Heat-related injuries and illnesses take place when the body absorbs more heat than it releases. In most cases, this is the result of extremely hot weather and the body failing to properly cool itself down. Extreme heat is defined by a heat index of 90 degrees or above. The heat index tells us what it actually feels like outdoors despite what the temperature reads.  “A heat index of 105 degrees is dangerous, even if you’re sitting down doing nothing,” says Dr. Scott Fowler, Utica Park Clinic Urgent Care physician.

Of the heat-related illnesses people experience during extreme hot weather, heat exhaustion and heatstroke are the most common. People are often confused and misinformed about the two illnesses. “You hear a lot of people say as long as you’re still sweating then you’re okay, but that’s not case,” says Dr. Fowler.

Knowing the signs and symptoms of the two heat-related illnesses is important when diagnosing and finding the right treatment.

Heat exhaustion is the result of the body losing necessary fluids through excessive sweating. Heat exhaustion happens when you are exposed to too much heat over a short period of time. Common signs of heat exhaustion are:

·         Muscle cramps

·         Dizziness

·         Fatigue

·         Nausea

·         Vomiting

·         Headache

According to Dr. Fowler, heat shouldn’t make you experience any of these symptoms. When treating heat exhaustion, actions should be taken to cool the body down. Getting out of the heat, resting and drinking cold fluids are simple ways to treat heat exhaustion. Untreated heat exhaustion has the ability to worsen and potentially lead to experiencing a heatstroke. “People will try to push through these circumstances and think they will be okay,” says Dr. Fowler.

Of these two heat illnesses, heatstroke is the most severe. Heatstroke is a result of the body's failure to regulate its temperature due heavy heat exposure. This causes the body’s temperature to quickly rise reaching dangerous temperatures. “Heatstroke is called a heatstroke, because you mimic having an actual stroke,” says Dr. Fowler.

The symptoms of heatstroke are:  

·         A body temperature of 104°F and above

·         Dry skin

·         Fast and strong pulse

·         Severe headache

·         Nausea/dizziness

·         Confusion/unconsciousness.

“A lot of time you go without warning, and with these symptoms you have to act in a hurry,” says Dr. Fowler.

The outcome of a heatstroke is life-threatening in 30-80 percent of cases. Those experiencing signs of a heatstroke require immediate medical attention and should call 911. While waiting for medical assistance, attempt to quickly cool down the body using the best methods available, such as moving into a shaded area, getting a breeze from cool air or wiping down with a cold towel.

As you continue to turn up the heat before summer ends through various outdoor activities, listen to your body and properly prepare for hot weather. “Hydration and appropriate clothing are easy ways to prepare for hot weather conditions,” says Dr. Fowler. 

Hydration should be used to keep the body cool.  “Water does very little for your body temperature, unless it’s cold water. In addition, your clothing should be light weight. Clothing should be loose, but you want to be covered to protect the skin from absorbing too much heat,” says Dr. Fowler.

If you or someone is experiencing minor heat injuries or heat exhaustion, visit Utica Park Clinic Urgent Care located at 9245 S. Mingo in Tulsa. For those experiencing signs of heatstroke call 911 immediately. For more Utica Park Clinic Urgent Care information or hours, please click here.