Heat Exhaustion: 5 Symptoms to Watch For

August 11, 2023

Wellness Primary Care
young woman holding an ice pack on her head

Summers seem to be getting hotter and hotter every year. In fact, weather experts have predicted more unusually hot weather, more drought, and hotter conditions nationwide. With hotter weather comes the risk of heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke. 

“Fortunately, heat-related illnesses such as heatstroke are preventable. Protect yourself by knowing the symptoms and understanding what to do if you or your family member show these common signs of heat exhaustion,” says Nicholas Chuck, PA with Riverside Center for Internal & Family Medicine

What Is Heat Exhaustion? 

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses too much water and salt, typically from sweating, and is different from heat stroke. Heatstroke is much more serious; it’s a medical emergency that occurs when your body is unable to control its internal temperature.

Heat exhaustion is one of three heat-related conditions, with heat cramps being the mildest type and heatstroke being the most severe heat-related illness.

What Causes Heat Exhaustion?

The main cause of heat exhaustion is the body’s inability to cool itself. Other common causes of heat exhaustion include:

  • Over-exercising or working or playing strenuously in hot weather or a heated room
  • Dehydration
  • Wearing heavier, tight clothing
  • Consuming alcohol

What Are the Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion?

Most heat illnesses happen when you stay out in the heat too long. According to the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC), the symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Headache, nausea, dizziness, light-headedness
  • Weakness and irritability
  • Excessive thirst
  • Heavy sweating; decreased urine output
  • Elevated body temperature

Who Is At High Risk for Heat Exhaustion?

People who have the highest risk for heat-related illness include:
  • Infants and children up to four years of age
  • People 65 years of age and older
  • People who are overweight or obese.
  • People who are ill or who have certain medical conditions
  • People who are socially isolated or underprivileged

Other factors can cause you to be at higher risk for heat exhaustion, such as:

  • Taking certain prescription medications, such as those used to treat high blood pressure or heart conditions, which may affect your ability to stay hydrated.  
  • Sudden temperature changes can cause you to have more trouble regulating your body temperature.
  • High heat index. The heat index measures humidity along with the outside temperature to determine how hot it feels to you and your body. If the heat index is greater than 91°F, be sure to focus on preventing heat exhaustion.
  • Wearing a heavy external load or protective clothing or gear

How Is Heat Exhaustion Treated?

Heat exhaustion treatment focuses on cooling your body before it turns into a more severe heat-related illness such as heatstroke. These tips can help you manage heat exhaustion:

  • Find a cooler location if possible. Stay in a shady area or remove a layer of clothing and go indoors where you can turn on the air conditioning.
  • Lie down and rest. If you are working, stop doing any strenuous activities which can help regulate your body temperate.
  • Hydrate yourself with water or a sports drink to. Sports drinks contain electrolytes, which your body loses through excessive sweating.
  • Seek medical care immediately if you become nauseated or vomit.
  • If your symptoms worsen, get help immediately. You’ll want to make sure you’re not experiencing heatstroke, which is a medical emergency. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately if you think you’re experiencing heat stroke.

“If you think you’re experiencing heat exhaustion or another heat-related illness, Riverside’s Emergency and Trauma Care departments are here to help. Riverside is proud of our Emergency Department teams, which deliver lifesaving care, 24/7 and 365 days a year, in five emergency rooms across Southeastern Virginia.  

How Can Heat Exhaustion Be Prevented?

CDC offers the following 3 simple tips to help you avoid heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses:

  • Stay Cool
    As much as possible, stay indoors whenever you can. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to a shopping mall or public library to cool off. Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, especially if you spend time outdoors.

  • Stay Hydrated
    Drink more fluids, regardless of how active you are. Don't wait until you're thirsty to drink. Keep in mind that if your doctor limits the amount you drink or you take water pills, ask how much you should drink when the weather is hot. Excessive sweating removes salt and minerals from the body that need to be replaced. A sports drink can replace the electrolytes (the salt and minerals) you lose in sweat.

  • Stay Informed
    Check your local news for extreme heat alerts and safety tips. As mentioned above, know the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses and how to treat them. Be sure to check on older adults who are at risk at least twice a day and closely watch them for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke. Infants and young children need closer and more frequent observation. 

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