Avoiding Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke During Summer

Sujal Mandavia, MD
July 7, 2021
4 mins

Summer is a favorite time of year for many people. Sunshine and warm temperatures get people out of the house to exercise or just have fun. But when the heat index (which measures the combined effects of air temperature and humidity) starts to rise to extreme high temperatures (above 90 degrees Fahrenheit [32.2 Celsius]), being outside can become uncomfortable and even dangerous. As global temperatures rise due to climate change, people in many parts of the U.S. are facing temperatures they’ve never faced before — and they may be less equipped to avoid heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Here’s how to stay safe.

When Does Heat Become Dangerous?

Our bodies keep us cool by sweating, but on an extremely hot day, sweating might not be enough. When the body is not able to properly cool itself, heat-related illnesses may result. Heat-related illnesses include heat rash, sunburn, heat cramps, heat stroke, and heat exhaustion — all of which can be uncomfortable or even painful. Heat stroke and heat exhaustion can be especially dangerous. People experiencing these conditions may lose consciousness or experience cardiac irregularities, damage to the brain and other vital organs, and in extreme cases, death. If you suspect that you or someone you’re with is experiencing heat stroke, call 911 immediately. 

Infants and very young children, people older than 65, people with underlying heart or circulatory conditions, and people who work outdoors are at a greater risk for these heat-related illnesses. Other risk factors include:

     • High levels of humidity

     • Higher weight (proportionate to height)

     • Fever

     • Dehydration

     • Prescription drug use

     • Mental illness

     • Sunburn

     • Participating in strenuous physical activity

     • Alcohol use

How to Protect Yourself from Heat-Related Illnesses

A first and obvious step in protecting yourself from heat stroke and heat exhaustion is to try and stay cool. If you can, limit exposure to the sun. Choose lightweight, light-colored clothing made from breathable materials. If you don’t have air conditioning at home, try keeping cool at air-conditioned places such as movie theaters and shopping malls. (Many local governments establish cooling centers during heat waves; check with your county or city government.) Fans may help keep you cool in some conditions, but in extreme heat, a fan may not provide enough relief. Try to avoid using your stove or oven on hot days. Taking cool showers or baths is also an effective way to cool the body down. 

Plan Your Day to Stay Cool

If you need to or choose to be physically active, try to do so in the early morning hours when the temperature is at its lowest. Physical activity includes any activity that increases heart rate, such as gardening, jogging, aerobics, construction work, walking, or cycling. Even in those early morning hours, rest frequently in shady areas. Stay hydrated with plenty of water, even if you don’t feel thirsty. If possible, choose extreme heat days as “rest days.” 

If you participate in physical activity, or work at a physically demanding job, and you find yourself short of breath and gasping for air, stop all activity immediately and rest in a cool place. 

Drink Up

Staying hydrated is key to avoiding heat related illnesses. Drink water. Beverages that are rich in electrolytes, such as sports drinks and coconut water, are also a good choice. Avoid alcohol and sugary drinks, both of which cause dehydration. Also limit caffeine, which acts as a diuretic, eliminating fluids from the body. 

As we age, we may become less able to notice thirst. For people older than 65, it’s important to drink plenty of water, even when they don’t “feel thirsty,” and choose water-rich foods, such as watermelon or cucumber, in order to prevent dehydration. 

Warning Signs and What to Do

Heat illnesses are serious and can occur even if you have taken precautions. 

+ Heat exhaustion

If you experience symptoms of heat exhaustion, move to a cooler place; remove hot clothing; take a cool bath or put cool, wet cloths on your body; sip water; and rest. If you are also throwing up, or if symptoms get worse or last longer than an hour, seek medical attention right away. Symptoms include:

     • Heavy sweating

     • Cold, pale, clammy skin

     • Fast, weak pulse

     • Nausea

     • Muscle cramps

     • Fatigue

     • Dizziness

     • Headache

     • Fainting (passing out)

+ Heat stroke

Heat stroke is a medical emergency — if you or someone you’re with is experiencing these symptoms, call 911 immediately. Then move to a cooler place if possible and apply cool, wet cloths to the skin. However, if heat stroke is suspected, do not drink anything unless advised to do so by medical personnel. Symptoms include:

     • Body temperature higher than 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39.4 degrees Celsius)

     • Hot, dry, red, or damp skin

     • Fast, strong pulse

     • Dizziness

     • Headache

     • Nausea 

     • Confusion 

     • Loss of consciousness 

If you or someone you love has a chronic health condition such as heart disease, diabetes, or kidney disease, speak with a healthcare provider about personalized ways to stay safe in extreme heat.

Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published, but it is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider about questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition, and before making changes to your healthcare routine.

Sujal Mandavia, MD

Dr. Mandavia has over 20 years of healthcare management experience. In his role as Chief Medical Officer at Carbon Health, Mandavia oversees all clinical operations and protocols, as well as the expansion of Carbon Health's world-class clinical care offering. When not at work, Sujal enjoys everything hockey related, listening to the Tragically Hip, and being taken for hikes by his Rhodesian Ridgebacks.