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The Warning Signs of Heat Exhaustion

Our latest heat wave of hot and muggy weather is a good reminder to keep cool and avoid the dangers of heat exhaustion.

"Heat exhaustion is a dangerous condition that can lead to heat stroke, and even death," says Dr. David Swanson. "It occurs when the body gets too hot and becomes unable to cool itself. High humidity plays a significant role in heat-related illnesses because it prevents the body from sweating and cooling itself. The problem becomes compounded even further when high temperatures and high humidity are combined with strenuous physical activity. Without taking necessary precautions, the results can be deadly."

According to Dr. Swanson signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Thirst
  • Very little urine

Here are some rules to help you beat the heat and prevent heat exhaustion.

Rule #1 – Stay hydrated

When the body becomes dehydrated, it reduces the body's ability to create sweat and maintain a normal core temperature. Heat cramps are the first stage of heat exhaustion. Warning signs include heavy sweating, thirst, fatigue, and muscle cramps. If you or someone you know is exhibiting any of these symptoms, get into a cool place and begin drinking fluids that contain electrolytes (like Gatorade or other sports drinks).

Rule #2 – Limit alcohol use

While it seems logical that drinking alcohol would also hydrate your system, the opposite is actually true. Alcohol is a diuretic (like caffeine) that causes you to urinate more frequently. It also affects the body's ability to regulate itself. The best advice is to limit your alcohol and caffeine consumption and drink water instead whenever you're out in the hot sun.

Rule #3 – Use common sense!

If you need to by physically active, try to do it in the morning when it is cooler. When it's hot and humid outside, don't over-exert yourself with exercise or physical activity. Instead of a jog outside, go to the air-conditioned gym.

Rule #4 – Know when to seek medical attention!

Dr. Swanson says, "If not treated promptly, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke which is a life-threatening condition." Heat stroke occurs when the body's core temperature rises to 104°F or higher. If left untreated, heat stroke can cause damage to the brain and other internal organs. If you suspect heat stroke, call 911 immediately.

Signs of heat stroke include:

  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Lack of sweating despite the heat
  • Red, hot, and dry skin
  • Muscle weakness or cramps
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Rapid heartbeat, which may be either strong or weak
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Behavioral changes such as confusion, disorientation, or staggering
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness

"It is good for your health to be active, and fun to enjoy the out-of-doors, but use your head," says Dr. Swanson. "And remember the old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."