Heat exhaustion is a medical condition that occurs when the body cannot regulate its normal temperature. This heat-related illness can be caused by several factors. One of the main causes of heat exhaustion is high temperatures outdoors. Exercising during a heatwave or when the heat index is above 91 degrees Fahrenheit dramatically increases your risk of developing heat exhaustion. High humidity can contribute to heat exhaustion as the body’s naturally cooling sweat doesn't absorb easily into the air.
Dehydration can also lead to heat exhaustion. Your body needs plenty of fluids to produce sweat in order to cool down and maintain its internal temperature or core temperature at a normal 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Without enough fluids, your body can’t produce sweat and can’t cool you down.
Fortunately, there are several things you can do when you have symptoms of dehydration caused by heat exhaustion. Here, we’ll go over the basics of heat exhaustion including the causes and symptoms, and give you some heat exhaustion recovery tips.
Risk Factors of Heat Exhaustion
Taking certain medications can increase the risk of heat exhaustion. Many prescription and over-the-counter drugs, including antihistamines, blood pressure medications like beta-blockers, and antidepressants, have dehydration as a side effect.
Young children, infants, and elderly individuals over the age of 65 are also much more likely to develop heat exhaustion. Children are still developing and thus aren’t as capable of cooling themselves down as grown adults. Elderly individuals may take medications or suffer from illnesses that make them more susceptible to heat exhaustion.
Other Heat-Related Illnesses
Heat exhaustion is one of several heat-related illnesses also known as hyperthermia. Some heat illnesses such as sunburn and heat cramps are milder while others, including heatstroke, are more severe. Many of these heat conditions share similar symptoms and treatments. The main exception is heatstroke because it is much more serious than other heat illnesses.
The main difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion is body temperature. Heatstroke is characterized by body temperatures over 104 degrees Fahrenheit while heat exhaustion ranges from 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms of heatstroke also include cognitive changes that don’t occur with heat exhaustion. Things like confusion, aggression, loss of consciousness, and numbness are indications of heatstroke rather than heat exhaustion.
Heatstroke is a dangerous health condition that requires medical attention. With this medical emergency, quick action is vital to prevent serious side effects, including brain damage and death. If you experience signs of heatstroke, get medical help by calling 911. If you’re treating someone else with heatstroke, try to cool them down by placing ice packs under their armpits or around their groin where large blood vessels increase the speed of cooling down.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion
The signs of heat exhaustion are easily recognizable. The body begins to feel extremely hot, and cooling down becomes difficult. Heat exhaustion and dehydration go hand in hand, so you’ll also likely experience symptoms including intense thirst and feelings of faint.
Heat exhaustion symptoms can last for 30 minutes with treatment, and side effects can linger for up to 24 hours. Here are some of the warning signs of heat exhaustion:
- Muscle cramps
- Low blood pressure
- Cool, moist, or clammy skin
- Weak, rapid pulse
- Rhabdomyolysis, a condition that causes a breakdown in muscle tissue
- Fever of 100.4°F to 103°F
Heat Exhaustion Recovery Tips
While the symptoms of heat exhaustion can be scary, treatment is generally simple. This condition is caused by excessive heat so the first thing you’ll want to do is move to a cool place.
To help your body cool down, take off any extra articles of clothing. Remove any jackets, gloves, beanies, or layers that you don’t need. If you’re doing strenuous activity outside, try moving indoors where there is air conditioning. You can also move into the shade or cool off by jumping into cold water such as a river or lake. The cool water can bring down your body temperature rapidly. If you're at home, try taking a cool shower or a cool bath.
If you can’t find a cool place, try to help your body cool down. Use ice packs or grab a bag of ice from the closest store. Place the ice under your armpits or along your groin near the femoral artery located in the inside of your upper thigh. Alternatively, you can place ice packs on your head, neck, or chest. If you can’t find any ice, wet a towel or article of clothing and place it in the same areas.
Aside from the temperature, dehydration is responsible for many of the symptoms of heat exhaustion. Drink plenty of fluids to help replenish any vitamins and minerals you lost while sweating. Instead of sugary sports drinks, look for an oral rehydration solution with a precise ratio of sodium and glucose such as DripDrop ORS. While you should also drink water regularly, water doesn’t contain many electrolytes, which provide quicker relief from dehydration. In cases of dehydration caused by heat exhaustion, electrolyte drinks are a better choice.
Prevention Is Key
You can prevent heat exhaustion by taking precautions, especially when conditions of extreme heat exist. Don’t exercise outdoors if the heat index is above 91 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have to be outside in hot weather for work or another reason, make sure to drink plenty of water and electrolyte drinks to avoid dehydration.
If you live in an area without air conditioning and a heatwave comes through, head somewhere cooler until temperatures drop. You can go to a cooling center or head to a mall, library, senior center, or movie theater that has air conditioning. If you’re sitting in a car, make sure you have the keys so you can turn on the air conditioning if you get too hot. Roll down the windows if there’s a breeze and try to limit your time outdoors.
Whether you’re exercising outdoors or working outdoors, wear lightweight and light-colored clothing to prevent heat exhaustion. Heavy knit clothing traps in your body’s heat, making it difficult to cool off. Tight-fitting clothing can also prevent your body from sweating properly. Instead, pick items that are lightweight, light-colored, and loose-fitting. Dress in layers if the temperatures are cold in the morning but expected to rise by the afternoon. Take off layers when you get hot.
To prevent heat-related illness, limit your time in hot environments including direct sun, especially during the high-heat hours of midday. Wearing sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher and wearing a hat to keep the sun off your head can help your body stay cool and prevent sunburn.
Avoid exercising outdoors on hot days or in humid weather. If the weather is hot, move your workouts indoors to prevent heat exhaustion or work out early in the morning and late at night when temperatures are cooler.
Prevent Dehydration From Heat Exhaustion
Risk factors, including certain medications, young or old age, and medical conditions, can increase the risk of heat stress and heat injury. Medications and illnesses can decrease the body’s ability to produce sweat and can increase the risk of dehydration. Anyone can suffer from heat exhaustion and symptoms are uncomfortable, ranging from dehydration and headache to fainting, nausea, and cramps. Fortunately, you can avoid heat exhaustion by taking precautions when the weather is hot.
Make sure to drink plenty of fluids and stay indoors when temperatures rise. If you forget to drink enough liquids, carry around a water bottle to help you remember to drink. For something more effective than water when it comes to dehydration, try DripDrop ORS, which comes in a variety of flavors including berry, lemon, watermelon, and orange. Whatever you choose, it’s a great way to get enough fluids without sacrificing flavor.