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What's the Difference Between Heat Stroke, Exhaustion, and Cramps?

By Sara Butler

What's the Difference Between Heat Stroke, Exhaustion, and Cramps?

The sun is in full bloom and the temperature is shooting up across the country. Although that may mean good times outdoors this summer swimming, sunning, and just having fun, everyone must be on the lookout for the serious illnesses that can accompany the soaring mercury.

Any time you are out in the heat and humidity, you risk developing a heat-related illness. That’s why it’s vital to understand the signs and symptoms to be aware of, and what you can do to avoid developing these illnesses in the first place.

So kick back, relax in your air-conditioned space with a cool glass of water, and get ready to learn all about the various heat-related illnesses that can derail your plans for summer fun and how to beat them.

What Are Heat Cramps?

Heat cramps are the first sign your body will send that it’s having trouble managing the hot environment you are in. Heat cramps are exactly what they sound like -- muscle spasms or cramping of muscles, particularly muscles in the abdomen or legs.

How to Treat Heat Cramps

Treating heat cramps is crucial because it may help you to prevent progression into the more serious stages of heat-related illness. If you notice you are developing heat cramps, then stop what you are doing and get to a cool place out of the sun. Use ice packs in the groin, neck, and armpits, and also apply ice to the areas that are cramping. Drink water or sports drinks to help replenish your body’s fluids to restore balance.

What Is the Difference Between Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion?

Heat-related illnesses include heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. When you’re outside in hot, humid weather, especially if you are working or exercising, and you don’t get any relief from the temperatures, then you are at risk of becoming ill.

The two most serious heat-related illnesses are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat exhaustion is caused by the loss of salt and water in the body; it often occurs when extreme heat or excessive sweating takes place due to physical activity and the body is not properly replenished with fluids and electrolytes. Heat exhaustion is the precursor to heat stroke. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Muscle cramping
  • Skin that is pale and moist
  • A low-grade fever
  • Headache
  • Anxiety
  • Vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Nausea
  • Diarrhea
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness

Heat stroke can develop if heat exhaustion is left untreated. It is the most severe heat-related condition and something life-threatening. When you develop heat stroke, your body simply is unable to regulate its temperature due to excessive heat. Your ability to sweat, which is a way to cool your body, is often lost; your body needs immediate medical attention.

The signs of heat stroke include:

  • Skin that is warm and dry to the touch
  • A high fever, typically over 104 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Mental confusion
  • Stupor
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Seizures or coma in serious cases
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Agitation
  • Vomiting
  • Nausea
  • Lethargy
  • Headache

If you want to prevent heat stroke, then you must first work at preventing heat exhaustion. That’s why understanding how to treat heat-related illnesses during heat waves and in hot environments is key.

How to Treat Heat Exhaustion

Now that you know what puts you at risk of heat exhaustion, and you know the signs of heat exhaustion, it’s important to understand how to treat it.

If you suspect you are beginning to suffer from heat exhaustion, then make sure to cool off. That means you should drink some cool water or a sports drink as you get to someplace out of the heat. Finding shade is a good start even though it can often be hot in the shade. Take off any excess clothing you may be wearing, and if you need to cool down even more rapidly, then take a cool shower or use ice packs near large arteries in the neck, armpits, and groin. If your condition continues to get worse, get medical help and call 911.

How to Treat Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is very serious. If you suspect you may have developed it or you’re with someone who has, then it’s vital to call 911 immediately. If you are able, drink fluids to help hydrate your body and cool off. You may also want to administer ice packs to the groin, armpits, or neck, or take a cool bath. Spraying yourself with the cool water from a hose is another option available to you, but remember that water in a hose that’s been lying in the sun can often be scalding, so exercise caution.

The Best Ways to Avoid Heat-Related Illness

Prevention of heat stroke and heat exhaustion is key when you’re out and about in the summer heat. Remember that a high body temperature can lead to brain damage, damage to other vital organs, and even death. Certain health conditions and even certain medications can make it harder for the body to stay cool when it’s hot outside.

To help avoid heat-related illness, you should keep these tips in mind:

Stay hydrated - One of the best things you can do to reduce the chances of developing a heat-related illness is to make sure you have plenty to drink. Minerals, salt, and water are removed from the body when you sweat. Replace them with water, sports drinks, and other liquids. You should avoid beverages with caffeine or alcohol in them because those can make you even more dehydrated.

Stay in the air conditioning - When the temperatures are high, it’s a good idea to stay inside and out of the heat. If you don’t have air conditioning in your home, then you can go somewhere that does, such as the mall or another public place -- maybe a movie theater -- until the hottest part of the day passes. You can also cool off with a cool shower.

Consider your schedule - When planning outdoor activities, look at the weather forecast ahead of time and stay indoors during the hottest part of the day, which is typically the late afternoon after the environment has felt the full brunt of the sun for a couple of hours. If you do need to be outside, make sure to schedule activities either in the morning or evening, avoiding the hot afternoon sun.

Wear light clothing - It’s best to choose lightweight, loose-fitting clothing when you’re going to be outside in the heat. A hat can help to keep your head cool in the sun, too. And don’t forget the sunscreen!

Have a buddy - When the weather outside is hot, make sure to check on friends and family. You want to make sure they don’t have signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

The dog days of summer bring with them the promise of fun, but you must always remember to be careful. Your health and wellness should be a priority, which is why taking steps to reduce the stress that heat places on your body is paramount to having a great summer.

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