Symptoms of Heat Cramps, Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke

Heat is probably not something you think of as being dangerous to your health. But if you’re not careful when the temperatures rise, it can result in serious illness or even be deadly.

June through August is the most common time of year for heat-related illnesses in the U.S. People 65 and older, along with infants and young children have the greatest risk. However, anyone who’s active in the heat needs to be careful.

Three common heat-related illnesses include heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. Heat cramps and heat exhaustion are less severe than heatstroke, but they can all be avoided if you take time to rest, drink enough fluids, and spend time in cool areas when they’re available.

Preventing Heat-Related Illnesses

One of the best things you can do is pay attention to the weather. Your body cools itself when the sweat on your skin evaporates. When it’s hot and humid, your body struggles with that process. In these situations it’s important to limit how long and intense your activities are along with making it a point to take extra breaks.

Other good strategies to prevent heat illnesses include:

  • Wear loose, lightweight, and light-colored clothing to help your body stay cool. Exercise early in the morning or late in the evening when it’s cooler outside.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of cool water before, during, and after you go outdoors. The more you drink the more you can sweat. Drinks with electrolytes are okay but they can have a lot of sugar calories.
  • Avoid alcohol. It can make you lose more body fluid.
  • Never leave anyone in a parked vehicle with the windows up.
  • Take it easy in the middle of the day when it’s hottest.

For more information on preventing heat-related illnesses, visit the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

How to Identify and Treat Them

From the least serious heat-related illness to the most serious, here’s how to identify and treat them:

Heat cramps: The result of dehydration and low salt levels.

Symptoms

  • Painful muscle cramps and spasms usually in the legs, arms, and abdomen
  • Heavy sweating

What To Do

  • Stop the activity and get to a cool place to rest
  • Apply firm pressure on the cramping muscles or gently massage them to relieve the spasms
  • Give sips of water unless there’s nausea, then do not give water
  • Ease cramps by stretching
  • Try ice packs to see if they help

Heat Exhaustion: The result of dehydration and prolonged over-exertion.

Symptoms

  • Fatigue
  • Heavy sweating
  • Weakness
  • Cool, pale, clammy skin
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Possible muscle cramps
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting

What To Do

  • Move to a cooler environment (air conditioned room, underneath a fan)
  • Lay the person down and loosen or remove their clothing
  • Apply cool, wet cloths to as much of the body as possible or bathe in cool water
  • Offer sips of water
  • Get medical help right away if there’s no improvement within an hour or if they vomit more than once

Heatstroke: The result of the body’s inability to regulate its temperature. It can be life-threatening.

Symptoms

  • Altered mental state (disorientation, confusion)
  • Throbbing headache, confusion, nausea, dizziness, shallow breathing
  • Body temperature above 103°F
  • Hot, red, dry skin
  • Lack of sweating
  • Rapid and strong pulse
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

What To Do

  • Call 911 immediately and begin cooling the person while waiting
  • Move to a cooler or air-conditioned place
  • Cool the body with cool cloths or a bath
  • Do not give fluids

Meet the Author

Fawad K. Khan, MD is an Internal Medicine physician at Aurora Wilkinson Medical Clinic in Hartland, Wisconsin.

Read more posts from this author

The information presented in this site is intended for general information and educational purposes. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own physician. Contact your physician if you believe you have a health problem.

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