Each year more people in the U.S. die from extreme heat exposure than from hurricanes, lightning, tornadoes, floods, and earthquakes combined, according to the Centers for Disease Control and PreventionTrusted Source (CDC).
The ongoing climate crisis has disrupted weather patterns across much of the U.S., with multiple cities declaring heat emergencies in recent days.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are potentially fatal conditions when temperatures rise, and it’s critical to know the signs, symptoms, and how to help yourself or others when heat illness occurs.
What’s the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke?
Dr. Adam Rivadeneyra, a sports medicine physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute in Southern California, told Healthline that heat illness is a “continuum,” with heatstroke involving neurologic changes, like loss of consciousness and/or seizures.
The CDCTrusted Source describes heat exhaustion as a “milder form” of heat-related illness that could develop after several days of exposure to high temperatures and inadequate or unbalanced replacement of fluids.
Heat stroke, the agency explained, happens when the body can no longer regulate its temperature to cool down.
Within 10 to 15 minutes, body temperature could reach 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, and without emergency treatment, the condition can lead to death or permanent disability.
Symptoms to look out for
Dr. Theodore Strange, chair of medicine at Staten Island University Hospital, part of Northwell Health in New York, said our body temperature is normally regulated to stay about 97 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit.
He emphasized that it’s “concerning” once someone’s temperature exceeds 104 degrees.
Strange said there are three stages of heat injury to look out for; heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and, heat stroke.
“Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion may develop suddenly or over time,” he cautioned. “Especially with prolonged periods of exercise.”
According to Strange, possible signs and symptoms of heat illness can include cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat, as well as:
- Heavy sweating
- Weak, rapid pulse
- Muscle cramps
“Children have additional risk of heat illness due to smaller surface area of their skin, which makes it harder to dissipate heat through sweating,” said Rivadeneyra
Preventing heat illness
Strange said, “the best prevention” is not to exercise or perform strenuous activities during the peak heat time of day or in direct sunlight.
“A must is to drink plenty of fluids both before and after the activities which should include water and electrolyte drinks,” he advised.
He pointed out that younger and older persons have to be particularly careful, as their bodies don’t have the regulatory ability to adapt to high temperatures.
Strange said steps we can take to reduce the risk of heat exhaustion or heat stroke include:
- Wearing looser, lighter clothing to help dispel the heat
- Avoid alcohol and heavy meals
- Avoid getting sunburned