Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke: Two Hot Weather Health Risks Never to Ignore

hot weather health risks

How High Temperatures Create Health Risks and How to Handle Heat-Related Emergencies

No matter how consistently you slather on a high SPF sunblock before going out, above a certain temperature you remain vulnerable to the health effects of high heat and humidity like heat exhaustion and heatstroke. These hot weather health risks that can sneak up on you if you’re not informed and are dangerous enough to land you in the emergency room. 

With 2022 set to be one of the hottest years on record, it’s never been more important to know how to stay safe when temperatures rise enough to pose heat-related health risks. 

How Hot Weather Affects Your Body 

Staying healthy throughout summertime involves knowing what your body needs when it is dangerously hot and humid outside, and to understand that, we need to take a look at how your body reacts to heat.

Your body maintains a core temperature that hovers around 98.6 degrees under normal conditions. If it heats up a degree or two above normal, your nervous system begins the process of cooling your body back down to safe levels. Blood carries heat, so your body will protect its internal organs by diverting blood from your internal organs and towards the skin to radiate away. Your sweat glands also get to work releasing sweat to cool you down as it evaporates from your skin’s surface. 

Heat and humidity can really jam up your natural cooling process, and when your body can’t cool itself enough to maintain its internal temperature at or near safe levels you become susceptible to the hot weather health risks of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. 

How Hot Weather Becomes a Health Risk

If it’s really hot outside, your body won’t be able to efficiently radiate heat away from the skin’s surface. So, your body tries again, moving more blood away from the organs and towards your skin, depriving your organs of the oxygen in your blood, while counting on the evaporation of sweat to cool your skin. 

However, sweat does not evaporate efficiently in hot weather with over 60% humidity, so it won’t do much to lower your internal temperature. Undeterred, your body will continue its doomed effort to cool you down the only way it knows how and sweat even more. As you sweat, your body loses fluids along with salt and other electrolytes that power many essential processes like regulating your heart and controlling your muscles. 

Unless you catch the signs of dehydration and get out of the heat, your internal temperature will remain dangerously high as your body runs low on vital resources. Not only can dehydration and electrolyte imbalance follow, but you also then become vulnerable to the more serious hot weather health risks of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Hot Weather Health Risk #1: Heat Exhaustion

When your body gets too hot, one possible result is the heat-related illness called heat exhaustion, which is often accompanied by dehydration. Heat exhaustion symptoms vary depending on the severity, and on whether your body is more in need of water or sodium.

Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion:

  • Heavy sweating as your body attempts to cool down
  • Pale or cold skin
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Dark urine, a sign of dehydration
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Extreme thirst, headache, dizziness, weakness, irritability, and confusion from water depletion
  • Nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps and weakness from electrolyte imbalance from salt depletion

What To Do If You Have Heat Exhaustion: First Aid

If you think you may have heat exhaustion, your top priorities are to cool down and hydrate. Move to a cooler location, or find shade if you can’t go somewhere that’s less hot. 

First Aid for Heat Exhaustion

  • Elevate your legs for better blood flow to the heart
  • Lower your internal temperature by removing clothing, applying cool towels on the skin, or taking a cool bath 
  • Drink caffeine and alcohol-free fluids in sips to gradually replenish the salt you lost through sweat.
  • If first aid measures do not provide relief within 15 minutes, seek emergency medical assistance.

How Long Does Heat Exhaustion Last?

Symptoms of heat exhaustion start to improve in about a half hour for most people. If you have experienced heat exhaustion or heatstroke, you may be sensitive to heat for about a week. Until your body has fully recovered, you can take care of yourself by getting enough rest, and avoiding hot weather and exercise. 

How Dangerous is Heat Exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is an extremely serious hot weather health risk, and you should take immediate action if you experience symptoms. Untreated, heat exhaustion can be fatal if your internal temperature continues to rise, reaches 104°F, and becomes heatstroke.

Hot Weather Health Risk #2: Heatstroke: 

When your internal temperature climbs past 104°F, your body is in serious trouble. Severely elevated body temperatures like these are called heatstroke, an extremely dangerous condition that can cause nervous system dysfunction, shock, organ failure, and even brain damage or death. And, the longer your internal temperature remains elevated, the more damage heatstroke can do. 

Symptoms of Heatstroke Include:

  • Fever of at least 104°F 
  • Cramping
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Flushed skin, or red skin
  • No sweating
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Fainting
  • Seizure

How Long Does it Take to Recover from Heatstroke?

Depending on the severity, recovery time for heatstroke ranges from a few days of initial recovery in the hospital to months or years to recover from organ damage. Severe cases can cause permanent brain damage or death.

Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion Risk Factors 

Risk factors for both heatstroke and heat exhaustion include the kind of hot and humid weather that are typical of Texan summers, particularly along the Gulf Coast. Strenuous exercise can also cause heat exhaustion and heatstroke through dehydration, especially for those who like to exercise outside in the heat.

Everyone who stays in high heat long enough is at risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke, but some populations are at elevated risk. Babies, children, the elderly, people with high blood pressure or other heart disease, people who are obese, and people who spend extended periods of time working outside or in hot settings are especially vulnerable to these hot weather health risks..

Certain medications, including antibiotics, prescription acne medicines, and medication to manage blood pressure or heart disease, elevate your risk of heatstroke. Talk to your doctor to see if your medications may put you at higher risk.

Treating Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke, and When to Call 911

Treating heat exhaustion involves replenishing lost liquid, moving to a cooler area, and in severe cases seeking medical care. 

The first thing to do if you or someone you know looks like they may have symptoms of heat exhaustion or heat stroke is to move to a cooler, or at least more shaded, area and take their temperature. A reading at or above 104°F indicates possible heatstroke, and you should seek medical attention immediately or call 911.

Readings under 104°F may be heat exhaustion. In cases of heat exhaustion, you can apply first aid, but also keep an eye on the victim’s temperature. Be ready to call 911 if a fever of 102°F or above after a half hour of first aid, or if they go into shock, faint, or have seizures. 

Protect Yourself From Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

Stay safe this summer by keeping an eye on the heat index, which measures air temperature and the effects of humidity. Heat indexes of 90°F or above signal a danger zone for heatstroke and heat exhaustion, when you should be mindful of the amount of time you spend in high temperatures and increase your water intake to replace what your body loses through sweat.

Tips for preventing heatstroke and heat exhaustion:

  • Stay inside when the heat index is high, ideally in an air-conditioned area.
  • Wear light, loose, clothing outdoors.
  • Shade yourself from the sun, and remember to bring your hat or even an umbrella when you go outside
  • Use sunscreen with at least 30 SPF
  • Drink water every 20 minutes or so. If you don’t feel thirsty, you may still be dehydrated, and the way to know is to see how dark your urine is. Dark urine is a sign of dehydration.
  • Never leave a child or pet in the car when it’s hot outside, as intense heat builds up fast and can be fatal in such environments.

For more health-related topics, tips, and recipes, make sure to follow along with our Hospitality Health ER blog. There you can read even more about staying safe in the heat in “Heads Up for the Summer Heat: How to Stay Out of the ER,” or dig deeper on the physical effects of dehydration in “Electrolyte Balance 101.” For giveaways, updates, and COVID-19 tips, like us on Facebook and Instagram.

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