• 17
  • May

Is it heat exhaustion or heat stroke?



The summer months are fast approaching and with them come celebrations, family vacations and trips to the beach. Children will be enjoying their days riding bikes or splashing with friends at the local water park. That means there are some precautions that need to be considered to ensure that no one falls victim to heat related illnesses.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are common occurrences, and if not recognized and properly treated, they can result in deadly outcomes. Do you know the signs and symptoms or what to do in the event of heat exhaustion or heat stroke?

Fortunately, GSEP Emergency Medicine (EM) has a great team of board certified EM physicians on hand that provide expert information and advice to keep you safe and healthy this summer. Here is what GSEP’s Dr. Sebrina Perkins wants you to know about heat exhaustion and heat stroke:

“Heat exhaustion can be caused by your body’s inability to cool itself. In hot weather, your body cools itself mainly by sweating. The evaporation of your sweat regulates your body temperature. When you exercise strenuously or otherwise overexert in hot, humid weather, your body is less able to cool itself efficiently.”

Heat exhaustion can present itself by the following symptoms as a result of exposure to high temperatures:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Headaches
  • Rapid pulse
  • Heat cramps
  • Heavy/profuse sweating




Some helpful tips to avert heat exhaustion are:

  • Wear lightweight and light colored clothing
  • Drink plenty of fluids such as sports drinks to help restore electrolyte balance
  • Avoid alcoholic beverages, which increase the body’s need for water
  • If drinking alcohol, be sure to alternate alcoholic beverages with water or sports drinks
  • Τake short breaks in a shaded air conditioned area; rest when temperatures spike in late afternoon
  • Avoid hot spots such as sitting in a hot car
  • Wear a large hat or use an umbrella to avoid a sunburn, which reduces the body’s ability to rid itself from heat

While heat exhaustion can be dangerous, heat stroke can be deadly. Here is what Dr. Perkins had to say about heat stroke:

Heat stroke can be characterized as patients developing core temperatures above 105.1 and is associated with multi-system organ and tissue damage, especially central nervous system dysfunction.

Heat stroke can happen when a person is exposed to a hot environment, leading to a rise in body temperature. This type of heatstroke typically occurs after exposure to hot, humid weather, especially for prolonged periods. Older adults and in people with chronic illnesses are most at risk.

Strenuous activity or exertion heatstroke is caused by an increase in body temperature brought on by intense physical activity in hot weather. Anyone exercising or working in hot weather can get exertional heatstroke, but it’s most likely to happen to those not accustomed to high temperatures.

The elderly are more susceptible as older adults do not adjust as well as young people to sudden changes in temperature. They are more likely to have chronic medical conditions that change normal body responses to heat. In addition, they are more likely to take prescription medicines that impair the body’s ability to regulate its temperature or that inhibit perspiration. Remember to check in regularly with elderly relatives or neighbors who might be at risk.

Indicators of heat stroke can be, but are not limited to the following:

  • Flushed skin
  • Rapid heart rates
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Confusion, lack of alertness
  • Muscle rigidity or tremors or progress to seizures
  • A state of near unconsciousness or coma if persistent heat exposure continues



Lastly, let us not forget the tragic cases of children left in parked cars. Given that children younger than two years of age are known to be most vulnerable over the last decade, these infants and toddlers may not be able to voice their symptoms. They could begin with irritability and then progress to lethargy, coma and death occurring in a short period of time. It is vital to never leave children or pets in a vehicle unattended!

If a child appears to have symptoms of heat stroke, treatment includes immediate removal of the child to a shaded area and applying cool towels or ice packs to strategic areas, such as armpit and neck areas. Since heat stoke is a medical emergency and can be fatal, it is recommended to seek medical care in an emergency room equipped to readily provide resuscitation.

The important lesson here is while enjoying those summer months, take the necessary precautions to avoid heat exhaustion or heat stroke. If you feel that someone is suffering from heat exhaustion or heat stroke and after simple treatment do not improve, be sure to seek medical care.