Sunny weather and warm temperatures often draw many people outdoors, as fun summer activities are plentiful. Whether you’re having an enjoyable day outside, exercising, or engaging in some sort of manual labor, our bodies can heat up quickly, and we rely on sweating to keep us cool and comfortable.

But what happens when our activity is excessively strenuous or it’s so hot out that our bodies can no longer regulate our internal temperature? This scenario is when heat-related illness can strike, and while it might not sound like a dangerous threat, the Center for Disease Control reports that nearly 700 people die per year due to this condition.

What Is A Heat-Related Illness?

There are two conditions that are classified as heat-related illnesses: heat exhaustion and heat stroke. While they sound very similar, they each have their own set of symptoms and have different outcomes if they aren’t promptly treated.

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is overheated and cannot continue to self-regulate through sweating. Symptoms can include:

  • Weakness
  • Confusion or anxiety
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive thirst
  • Sweating followed by chills or clammy skin

It’s important to recognize heat exhaustion right away as it can develop into a more life-threatening condition called heat stroke.

Heat stroke can be deadly if not treated immediately, and presents with more serious symptoms, including:

  • A core body temperature of 104° or higher
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Severe headache
  • Dry, hot, and red skin
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Behavioral changes

Individuals who suffer from heat stroke must seek immediate medical attention, as an increased body temperature can lead to brain damage. While heat exhaustion is serious and should be addressed, heat stroke is considered to be a medical emergency.

Treating Heat Stroke And Heat Exhaustion

If you or someone around you starts experiencing symptoms of heat-related illness, there are several things you can do to try to alleviate their discomfort. Move them to a shaded and cool place as quickly as possible. Encourage them to drink fluids slowly and place ice packs on their body if they are exceptionally warm.

Many people will feel better after just a few hours of rest, but continuing to hydrate will go a long way toward total rehydration over the course of several days. If an individual loses consciousness or has difficulty breathing, seek medical attention right away.

Who Is At Risk?

Statistics show that those who succumb to heat-related illness tend to be individuals aged 65 and older, and nearly half of all deaths between 1999 and 2010 occurred in Texas, Arizona, or California.

Young children are also considered to be in a high-risk category for experiencing heat-related illness, as they typically can’t discern the symptoms that present themselves in the same way that an adult can and their body isn’t able to regulate its temperature quite as well. Those who are newborn through age 4 tend to die from these conditions more often than individuals between the ages of 5 and 34.

Additional risk factors for heat-related illness include obesity, taking certain prescription medications, or being in an environment with a high heat index. When it’s both hot and humid, your sweat is not as effective at cooling your body down.

Tips For Preventing Heat-Related Illness

Since heat exhaustion and heat stroke occur as a result of several combining factors, there are a multitude of ways to prevent a heat-related illness. The CDC recommends keeping three main messages in mind: staying cool, hydrated, and informed.

If you have to be outside during high temperatures, make sure to dress appropriately in light colored and loose fitting clothing. Try to schedule your activities during the earlier or later parts of the day, as temperatures won’t be quite as extreme. Take breaks as needed and be sure to wear sunscreen.

Your body’s inability to cool itself is what primarily leads to heat-related illnesses, so making sure you stay hydrated is essential. It’s important to drink water or a sports drink to replace the salt and minerals you’ve sweated out of your body; avoid sodas or alcohol as they can further dehydrate you.

Try planning ahead as much as you can during hot weather. If necessary, postpone activities for a week or so if a particularly warm patch of weather comes around. Remember that young children and those over age 65 are very susceptible to heat-related illness, so check in on them often and encourage them to stay cool and hydrated.