Heat exhaustion vs heatstroke: Here’s the difference and how to stay safe

As parts of the United States sizzle under a broiling heat wave with temperatures spiking into the triple digits in some areas, experts are warning people about the signs of heat-related illnesses.

Heat typically kills more people in the U.S. than other weather-related events, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, but there are easy ways to protect yourself.

The two most dangerous heat-related conditions are heat exhaustion and heatstroke; both are life-threatening if left untreated. Those most at risk for the illnesses include babies and young children, people 65 and older, overweight people, those overexerting themselves during work or exercise in heat and people with medical conditions, such as heart disease or high blood pressure among other illnesses

Heat exhaustion occurs when your body overheats and is usually caused by high temperatures combined with high humidity and strenuous physical activity, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Weak, rapid pulse
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headache
  • Nausea

If experiencing heat exhaustion, medical experts recommend stopping all activity and resting, moving to a cooler place and drinking cool water or sports drinks.

Heatstroke, which is most common in the summer, also happens when your body overheats, usually during prolonged exposure to or physical activities in high temperatures. It happens when the body’s temperature rises to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

A person experiencing heatstroke needs emergency treatment because if left untreated, heatstroke can quickly damage the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles, the Mayo Clinic reports. The longer treatment is delayed, the more serious the risks for complications or death.

Symptoms of heatstroke:

  • High body temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Altered mental state or behavior
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Flushed skin
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headache

Call 911 immediately if you think someone is experiencing heatstroke. Then get the person into a shaded area or indoors, the Mayo Clinic recommends. Remove extra clothing and cool the person with whatever means are available, including a cold tub of water, a garden hose, fanning while misting with cold water or applying ice packs or wet towels in the head, neck and groin area.

It's best to try to avoid heat exhaustion and heatstroke altogether. Here's how, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Stay hydrated; drink plenty of water
  • Wear appropriate lightweight and loose-fitting clothing and hats during extreme heat
  • Stay indoors in a cool area
  • Limit outdoor activity and try to schedule outside events when it's coolest in the morning and evening
  • Cut down on exercise during the heat
  • Wear sunscreen because sunburn affects your body's ability to cool down
  • Don’t leave children in cars, and keep your pets hydrated

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