When it comes to the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke, it’s important to remember that while heat exhaustion is less severe, it can lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal.
During extreme summer weather, heat exhaustion can occur after you’ve overexerted yourself, or after you’ve become overheated and dehydrated in hot, humid places such as hot cars and areas without air conditioning. Babies, small children, older adults and those on certain medications are more susceptible to heat exhaustion than most healthy adults. However, even well trained athletes and fit adults are susceptible in hot, humid environments.
Signs of heat exhaustion include weakness, increased sweating, a weak but faster pulse or heart rate, nausea or vomiting, muscle cramps, and possible fainting.
At the early signs of heat exhaustion, the first step is to get out of the hot, humid environment and into a cool, dry area. Then, rehydrate with water and sports drinks containing electrolytes and, if possible, have a fan apply cool air.
Heat stroke can come on suddenly after heat exhaustion sets in, and occurs when the body’s cooling system stops working, causing your internal body temperatures to escalate to 105F or higher. This can result in damage to your brain and other organs. Besides elevated body temperatures, other signs of heat stroke include a rapid and strong pulse or heart rate, loss of consciousness and hot, red, dry skin.
Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency, so call 911 and/or seek help immediately if you experience symptoms.
- Christopher Beach, MD, Northwestern Medical Group, emergency medicine
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