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Heat Illness

graphic of symptoms and treatment of heat related illness by the CDC

Heat illness is classified as several disorders that result from a person’s exposure to heat.  Heat illness manifests in four different levels of severity: heat rash and heat cramps (both mild), heat exhaustion and heat stroke (both serious).

What Happens with Heat Illness?

Your body is mostly made up of water. In that water you have components called electrolytes (potassium and sodium are examples of electrolytes). When you’re hot you sweat, and when you sweat you lose water and sodium. The hotter you are the more water and sodium you lose, causing a deficiency in sodium, and the remaining electrolytes in your body will become more concentrated because of the decrease of water in your system.

Any time your level of electrolytes is too high or too low, things can go wrong with how your body normally functions and it can make you sick. The same goes for water: when you become dehydrated, your body will not function as normal and you can become sick as well.

This is what is happening with heat illness. In minor cases (such as heat rash or heat cramps), replacing water and electrolytes is usually enough to get you feeling better and back to normal. In more severe cases, more treatment is required.

It should be noted that when you rehydrate, you should do so with not just plain water, but also electrolytes. If you rehydrate with only water, it could cause your electrolytes to become too diluted and cause more problems.

Risk Factors

Fisk factors for heat exhaustion include:

-elderly individuals
-high blood pressure
-certain medications
-drug and alcohol use
-certain medical conditions

Let’s go through each type of heat illness and discuss symptoms and treatment.  I am using references from the Cleveland Clinic and the CDC.

Stages of Heat Illness

Heat rash:

Heat rash happens when you sweat excessively, and your skin becomes irritated.  It generally happens in the areas of skin that stay wet from sweat (ie- upper chest, inside of the elbow, etc) and manifests in the form of small bumps or blisters.

If you are suffering from heat rash, move to a cooler temperature if at all possible.  Dry off the affected area, and do not use any ointments or creams.

Heat cramps:

Heat cramps are the next level of severity of heat illness.  Your body continues to sweat, and those electrolyte imbalances we talked about before start to kick in.  This results in muscle pain, cramps, or spasms, generally in the legs, arms, or abdomen.

If you are suffering from heat cramps, you must get out of the heat and replace the lost electrolytes and water that have left your system.  You can do this by drinking water or electrolyte replacement beverage and having a snack every 15-20 minutes until you feel better.

Please note:
Do not use salt tablets! Get medical help if you have heart problems, if you’re on a low sodium diet, or if your cramps don’t get better within one hour.

Heat exhaustion:

Once a person gets to the point of experiencing heat exhaustion, the depletion of electrolytes and the decreased level of water is so severe that they start causing some serious problems.  If not treated immediately, symptoms can become much worse.

Symptoms of heat exhaustions include:
-muscle cramps
-possible fainting
-elevated body temperature
-decreased urine output
-weak and quick pulse
-quick and shallow breathing
-cool, moist, pale skin
-and of course, the expected heavy sweating, thirst, and irritability

If someone has heat exhaustion, take them immediately to a cooler location and give them water and electrolytes.  Remove unnecessary clothing, including shoes and socks.  Cool them by dousing them with cold water, and apply cold compresses under the arms, on the neck, and to the groin area (the rationale being those areas have a large amount of blood flowing through them, and it will drop the body temperature faster as you cool the blood as it flows through those areas).  If the subject’s condition doesn’t improve, call for medical help.

Heat stroke:

Once a person has heat stroke it is now a medical emergency.  Call 911.  Heat stroke can cause permanent disability or death if they don’t receive emergency medical treatment.

Symptoms of heat stroke include all that are listed with heat exhaustion and:
-confusion, altered mental state, slurred speech
-temperature of 103°F
-muscle twitching
-no sweating and the skin is red, hot dry skin (this one is important to note because the body has no more water left to sweat)
-rapid pulse
-loss of consciousness/coma

If you suspect someone has heat stroke, call for emergency medical care immediately.  Move them out of the heat and remove their clothing.  Cool them down as fast as possible with cold water (or ice bath if it’s available).  Place cold compresses in the armpits, groin area, and around the neck.  Circulate air to continue to cool the subject down.

Heat Illness Chart

For your reference, here is a great graphic from the CDC that shows symptoms and treatment of heat illness:

graphic of the symptoms and treatment of heat illness by the CDC




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