Heat exhaustion presents with symptoms such as rapid pulse and heavy sweating and is a result of overheating. There are three syndromes related to heat: heat cramps are the mildest, heat exhaustion sits between this and heatstroke.
The cause of heat exhaustion can be due to exposure to high temperatures, this is a particular issue when it is combined with high humidity, as well as strenuous physical activity. Heat exhaustion is preventable, however, without treatment it can lead to heatstroke, this is a life threatening condition.
The symptoms could develop over time, or suddenly and include:
- Heavy sweating
- Moist and cool skin that is goose bumped in heat
- Low blood pressure
- Muscle cramps
- Weak or rapid pulse
If you believe you are experiencing heat exhaustion stop physical activity and rest in a cool place, drink plenty of water or sports drinks. If your symptoms are worsening, or do not improve within an hour then contact your doctor. If your body temperature is 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher seek medical attention immediately.
Your body regulates its heat gain and heat loss from the environment in order to sustain its core temperature of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The body heat is combined with environmental heat to create your core, or internal, temperature.
One of the ways our bodies regulate our heat in hot weather is by sweating. When you subject your body to strenuous exercise in hot and humid weather your body struggles to cool itself efficiently.
Consequently, your body could develop heat cramps, the mildest heat related illness. The symptoms of heat cramps are fatigue, thirst, muscle cramps and heavy sweating. To prevent this from developing into heat exhaustion drink fluids, or electrolyte packed sports drinks, find shade or a cooler temperature and rest.
There are other causes of heat cramp, that can include dehydration, alcohol use, and overdressing.
While anyone can be the victim of heat exhaustion, there are certain factors which increase heat sensitivity.
- Age- children younger than the age of 4, and adults over 65 are at a greater risk of heat exhaustion. Children’s bodies are not fully developed thus unable to regulate temperature. For older adult’s slight illness, medications and other factors can make them more susceptible to heat exhaustion.
- Drugs- there are a number of medications that can affect the body’s ability to remain hydrated. They include tranquilizers, allergy medicines, beta blockers, diuretics, as well as antipsychotics. Additionally, there are a number of illegal drugs like amphetamines and cocaine that actually increase the core temperature.
- Obesity- your body retains more heat when you are carrying extra weight, as it affects the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
- Sudden changes in temperature- if you have travelled to a warmer climate and you are not used to dealing with heat then you are at a greater risk of heat exhaustion.
- High Heat Index- this is a temperature value that takes the outdoor temperature and humidity level into account. If humidity is high your sweat won’t evaporate as easily, therefore your body can’t cool itself properly. This leaves you at risk for heat exhaustion. When the heat index reaches 91 degrees Fahrenheit or higher you are at risk.
If heat exhaustion is left untreated it can result in heatstroke, heatstroke is a life threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. It can lead to permanent brain damage, as well as shut down major organs.
Medical personnel will take your temperature to confirm the diagnosis as well as to rule out heatstroke. If they suspect heatstroke you will be given: a blood test, a urine test, imaging tests, and muscle function tests.
In the majority of cases you can treat your own heat exhaustion. Rest in a cool place, drink non-alcoholic fluids that contribute to hydration, use cool towels on your skin, remove unnecessary clothing and only wear loose and lightweight clothing. If this doesn’t improve you within an hour you will need intravenous fluids for rehydration.
Your best bet, however, is to take steps to ensure that you do not succumb to any heat related illnesses.
- Choose light colored clothing that is loose-fitting and lightweight. Dark, tight clothing attracts and holds heat in which doesn’t allow your body to cool properly.
- Apply sunscreen and wear a hat. avoiding sunburn is an excellent way to protect yourself, as sunburn limits your body’s ability to regulate its heat.
- Seek shade. If you can manage to spend some time in an air conditioned building for a few hours that is ideal, however, if your home or vacation spot doesn’t have AC head to the store/mall. If none of this is possible, look for shade.
- If you’re on the job, there should be a job safety analysis worksheet outlining any steps you should take for that particular task.
- Drinking plenty of fluids is vital to maintaining a normal body temperature, and avoid alcohol. If you have a health condition that requires you to limit your fluid intake, then check with your doctor to be sure how much extra fluids you will need to drink.
- Watch your medications. Check with your pharmacist, or doctor, about whether your medication leaves you susceptible to heat exhaustion and ask what you can do to counteract that.
- Dodge hot spots. Once your car has been left parked in the heat the temperature rises as much as 20 degrees in only 10 minutes. So before you drive anywhere give your car time to cool down. Never leave anyone (child, adult, or animal) in a parked car in hot weather, regardless of the length of time.
- Give your body time to acclimatize. If you’re heading somewhere hot your body needs time to get used to it, so don’t attempt any strenuous activities until your body is used to it.
You should always avoid strenuous activity in hot weather, if you live in a hot climate opt for an early morning or evening workout to take advantage of the break in heat. If you have no choice but to engage in vigorous activities, then make sure you take regular breaks in order to drink fluids so that your body can regulate its temperature.