- Record-breaking temperatures across the country have led to an increase in hospital admissions due to heat-related emergencies. It's crucial to understand the warning signs of heat emergencies and how to protect oneself.
- Heat emergencies can manifest as fainting, heat cramps, heat rash, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Symptoms include dizziness, muscle cramps, profuse sweating, nausea, rapid heart rate, skin irritation, and in severe cases, seizures, brain damage, and death.
- If any of these symptoms are experienced, immediate action should be taken to move to a cool, shaded area, preferably air-conditioned. Hydration with fluids containing electrolytes, such as sports drinks, is also recommended.
- Heat stroke is the most dangerous heat-related condition, characterized by a body temperature above 103F, red, hot, dry skin, rapid heart rate, throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion, hallucinations, and unconsciousness. Immediate medical attention is necessary in such cases.
- To prevent heat-related illnesses, the CDC recommends drinking plenty of water, pacing oneself during work or exercise, using a buddy system when outside in high temperatures, scheduling outdoor activities to avoid the hottest parts of the day, and wearing lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing.
Parts of the country are experiencing some of the hottest days on record over the last few weeks. In fact, one Phoenix-area hospital reported pandemic-level hospital admissions, largely due to heat-related emergencies.
With record-breaking temperatures scorching many summer vacation destinations, it’s a good idea to understand the warning signs of a heat emergency, and what you can do to protect yourself.
1. Feeling Faint
Fainting while you’re out in the heat is known as heat syncope—and can be one of the last signs of heat exhaustion, according to the CDC. Feeling faint is known as pre-syncope and is a serious sign you are getting ill from the heat. It may not take long for you to feel the effects of being out in extreme temps. Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include:
- Suddenly feeling dizzy
- Muscle cramps
- Profuse sweating
- Feeling nauseous
- Rapid heart rate
- Passing out
While heat exhaustion isn’t usually life-threatening, it can be a sign that a more serious heat emergency (like heat stroke) is right around the corner. Falling when you pass out also poses the risk of sustaining an injury. If you begin to notice these symptoms while out in the heat, the CDC recommends that you get to a cool, shaded area right away (preferably in an air-conditioned area). You should also hydrate yourself with fluids that contain electrolytes (such as a sports drink).
2. Heat Cramps
Heat cramps are muscle cramps or spasms that can occur when you’re working out in the heat for too long. According to the CDC, heat cramps happen when your body sweats out too much salt from your body—leaving not enough salt for your muscles to work properly.
Heat cramps by themselves aren't a big deal, but they are usually a warning sign that a more major heat-related illness can happen. If you’ve been doing physical activity out in the heat and you notice your hands, feet, or legs start to cramp up, it's time to take heat exposure seriously. The CDC recommends getting into a cool, shaded area, and hydrating with water or a sports drink that is high in electrolytes.
3. Heat Rash
Heat rash is a skin irritation that is caused by excessive sweating. The CDC notes that it is more common in areas where the skin folds, such as the neck, groin, under the breasts, and in elbow creases. The best treatment for heat rash is to get into a cool environment and keep the folds of your skin dry. Using things like baby powder or Gold Bond powder in the creases and folds of your body can also help keep that area dry.
4. Heat Exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is a serious condition that requires prompt attention. It can happen after long periods of time in high temperatures. This period of time can be different, depending on the person—for example, elderly people have a lower tolerance for high temperatures, so they may experience heat exhaustion faster than younger adults. According to the CDC, some of the symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Muscle cramps in your arms, legs, and stomach
- Looking pale or breaking out in a cold sweat
- A low-grade fever
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Headache and fatigue
- Feeling like you’re about to faint
It's essential to get to a cool environment at the first signs of heat exhaustion, according to the CDC. Shedding excess layers of clothing and hydrating yourself with water and sports drinks are also recommended.
5. Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is the most dangerous heat-related problem. It happens when your body’s internal temperature rises to a dangerous level and can quickly become life-threatening.
High body temperature during heat stroke can cause seizures, brain damage, and even death if not treated immediately. The CDC notes the symptoms of heat stroke as:
- Fever (usually above 103F)
- Red, hot, and dry skin (no sweating)
- Rapid heart rate
- Throbbing headache
- Confusion or hallucinations
If you or anyone around you has these symptoms during a heat wave, you should move them to a cooler place and call 911 right away. Getting rid of as much clothing as possible, drinking water, and spraying yourself down using cool (but not ice-cold) water can also help. If you have ice, place ice packs in your armpits or around your groin to help lower body temperature faster.
Now that you’ve brushed up on your knowledge of heat-related illnesses, it’s time to start taking steps to protect yourself. If you’ll be outside this summer, remember these tips from the CDC:
- Drink plenty of water (don’t wait until you’re thirsty)
- Drink sports drinks to help replace electrolytes
- Pace yourself during work or exercise—take plenty of breaks to cool off
- Use a buddy system whenever you’re outside in high temperatures
- Schedule outdoor activities to avoid the hottest parts of the day
- Avoid salt tablets unless directed by your doctor
- Wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing
- Use wide-brimmed hats to help shade your head and face
- Apply sunscreen before going out and continue to reapply as often as the directions say to
Think you’re having symptoms of a heat-related illness? Find your nearest urgent care clinic.
Frequently asked questions
What are some symptoms of heat exhaustion?Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include suddenly feeling dizzy, muscle cramps, profuse sweating, feeling nauseous, rapid heart rate, and passing out.
What is heat syncope?Heat syncope is a condition where a person faints due to heat exposure. It can be one of the last signs of heat exhaustion, according to the CDC.
What should one do if they start experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion?If you start experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion, it is recommended that you move to a cool, shaded area immediately, preferably an air-conditioned area. You should also hydrate yourself with fluids that contain electrolytes, such as a sports drink.
What are heat cramps and what causes them?Heat cramps are muscle cramps or spasms that can occur when you’re working out in the heat for too long. They happen when your body sweats out too much salt, leaving not enough for your muscles to work properly.
What is the most dangerous heat-related problem?The most dangerous heat-related problem is heat stroke. It occurs when your body’s internal temperature rises to a dangerous level and can quickly become life-threatening.
What are some symptoms of heat stroke?
How can one protect themselves from heat-related illnesses?To protect yourself from heat-related illnesses, drink plenty of water, consume sports drinks to replace electrolytes, pace yourself during work or exercise, use a buddy system when outside in high temperatures, schedule outdoor activities to avoid the hottest parts of the day, wear lightweight, light-colored, loose-fitting clothing, and apply sunscreen regularly.
What should be done if someone is suspected to be suffering from heat stroke?If you suspect someone is suffering from heat stroke, move them to a cooler place and call 911 immediately. Remove as much clothing as possible, have them drink water, and spray them down with cool (but not ice-cold) water. If you have ice, place ice packs in their armpits or around their groin to help lower body temperature faster.
Solv has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
- Extreme Heat Increased Hospitalizations. (July 24, 2023)
- FAQs About Extreme Heat. (July 24, 2023)