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Home > Health & Wellness > Health Education > Heat Safety: Preventing & Treating Heat Cramps, Heat Exhaustion & Heat Stroke
Published on July 16, 2013
As summer continues on, we’re all feeling the intensity of the heat. Naturally, our bodies are heaters – keeping us warmed up to 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. We cool ourselves by sweating and passing heat through our skin. But, with unusually high outdoor temperatures, high humidity or intense exercise, our natural cooling systems can fail. This causes temperatures inside our bodies to rise to dangerous levels, causing heat illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Athletes may notice heat cramps during or after exercise on very hot days. Heat cramps are usually short but severe cramps in the muscles of the legs, arms or stomach. Because you lose a lot of salt and fluids when you sweat, the low level of salt in your body can cause muscles to cramp. You are more susceptible to heat cramps when you aren’t drinking fluids – so make sure to drink plenty of water when you are out in the heat. Go indoors to a cool place to find relief from the cramps, or try massaging the muscle. Although heat cramps are painful, the good news is they aren’t serious.
Heat exhaustion is a more serious heat illness that occurs when a person isn’t drinking enough fluids and is in a hot climate. Symptoms include dehydration, fatigue, headaches, clammy skin, nausea, hyperventilation, irritability and a general feeling of weakness. If you notice these symptoms when you are out in the hot sun, go indoors or to the shade immediately. Loosen your clothing, and drink fluids. You can also bathe in cool (but not cold) water. If symptoms don’t subside, call your MercyCare primary care doctor.
Heat stroke is the most serious of all heat illnesses, and is considered a life-threatening emergency. During heat stroke, the body loses its ability to regulate its own temperature, and body temperatures can reach 106 degrees or higher. This can lead to brain damage or death if it isn’t treated, so seeking immediate medical attention is vital. Heat stroke is usually caused by overdressing or extreme exercise in hot weather without proper fluid intake. Symptoms include flushed, dry skin (no sweating); a high fever; an intense headache; confusion; dizziness; weakness; and fatigue. Heat stroke can also lead to seizures and loss of consciousness. Do not give fluids to someone suffering from heat stroke. Seek shelter, lightly sponge or douse them with cold water, and seek emergency assistance.
Knowing the signs of heat illnesses can help keep you and your children safe all summer. As a rule of thumb, drink plenty of fluids when you’re out in hot, sunny weather. Keep drinking the whole time you are outside – even when you don’t feel thirsty. Wear light-colored, loose clothing that reflects the sun’s rays and allows your skin to breathe. Exercise in the early morning or evening hours to avoid the hottest parts of the day. Lastly, go inside if you begin to feel overheated.