The Difference Between Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion (+ 5 Ways to Prevent Heat Stroke)

July 5, 2019

My family loves outdoor activities. But as the temperature rises, you won’t find us outside too much during the blazing Arizona summers.

Of course, it’s hot across most of the U.S. during the summer, so we all need to be mindful of how hot weather can affect us. Heat illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke (also known as sunstroke or hyperthermia) are common this time of year.

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are serious conditions and it’s important to learn to recognize the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In fact, heat stroke is a medical emergency.

Make your time in the sun this summer enjoyable and safe! Read on as I explain the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion. Plus, I’ve included tips on how to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

The Difference Between Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion

The terms heat exhaustion and heat stroke seem similar, so what is the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke? The symptoms of heat exhaustion include a body temperature of up to 104 F, plus extreme thirst, nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, and dizziness.

If you or someone you are with appears to be experiencing heat exhaustion symptoms, move to a shaded, cooler location, and take steps to cool down.

The most common cause of heat exhaustion is dehydration, so it’s very important to stay hydrated by drinking water and getting plenty of electrolytes from coconut water or a sports drink, if necessary. (I don’t recommend drinking these on a regular basis because they usually contain high amounts of sugar. However, in a critical situation such as avoiding dehydration or heat exhaustion, they can help.)

The question of whether it’s a heat stroke versus heat exhaustion is basically a matter of degree: Heat exhaustion left untreated leads to heat stroke. Both conditions need to be treated immediately. Heat stroke is a medical emergency that can be deadly.

12 signs and symptoms of heat stroke - Dr. Pingel

Heat Stroke Causes

You may be wondering, what is the root cause of heat stroke? In fact, there are two primary heat stroke causes: [1]

  1. Exertional heat stroke: Caused by high levels of activity in a hot environment, often during sports or other vigorous activity outside on a summer day. This type of heat stroke often affects healthy, younger people who may not pay attention to the health risks caused by excessive activity in hot weather or the dangers of extreme heat.
  2. Nonexertional heat stroke: Often affects the very young or much older adults or those with chronic illnesses whose bodies are not able to regulate body temperature effectively. Simply being in a hot environment, without being active, can result in a heat stroke in these individuals.

While these are the two main causes of heat stroke, certain factors can increase the risk of heat stroke. These heat stroke factors include:

  • Dehydration
  • Wearing bulky or heavy clothing (such as firefighters)
  • Poor ventilation or lack of air conditioning
  • Being overweight
  • Certain medications (especially antihistamines, laxatives, calcium channel blockers for blood pressure, medications for Parkinson’s disease, and some tricyclic antidepressants and anti-diarrhea medications)
  • Lack of sleep, which leads to a lowered rate of sweating
  • Using illicit drugs such as heroin, cocaine, Ecstasy (MDMA), and amphetamines
  • Having a previous heat stroke
  • Not being accustomed to heat or hot weather (for example, moving from a much cooler climate to a warmer climate)

12 Signs and Symptoms of Heat Stroke

A heat stroke is a medical emergency that typically requires hospitalization. If you or someone you know experiences these signs of hyperthermia, call 911 or get medical help immediately.

In addition to the symptoms below, a high core body temperature of 104 F (40 C) or higher, taken rectally, is a key indicator of heat stroke. Heat stroke signs and hyperthermia symptoms include: [2]

1. Fainting
2. Intense headache
3. Muscle weakness or muscle cramping
4. Dizziness
5. Nausea
6. Vomiting
7. Rapid heartbeat
8. Red, hot, dry skin
9. Fast, shallow breathing
10. Confusion or other behavioral changes
11. Seizures
12. Unconsciousness

How to Recover from a Heat Stroke

While you are waiting for the medical care team to arrive, here are some heat stroke remedies to help cool the person down. Usually, heat stroke treatment requires one or more days of hospitalization. Full recovery from a heat stroke can take anywhere from about two months to one year, depending on how much the body’s organs are affected.

  • Help them remove unnecessary or excess clothing.
  • Move them to a shaded area or take them indoors.
  • Spray them with cool water or put them in a tub of cool water. Place ice packs or washcloths and towels soaked with cold water on their head, neck, armpits, and groin area.

5 ways to help prevent heat stroke - Dr. Pingel

5 Ways to Prevent Heat Stroke

Heat exhaustion causes are basically the same as the causes of heat stroke. Because of this, despite the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion, preventing both conditions requires many of the same steps.

Below are some easy steps you can take to help prevent heat stroke, as well as heat exhaustion prevention. During times of extreme heat or heat waves, it’s best to stay inside in an air-conditioned environment and limit time outdoors. [3]

1. One of the most important steps to preventing heat stroke is staying hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids, including water and drinks that replenish electrolytes, such as coconut water.
2. Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing.
3. Protect yourself from sunburn with sunscreen and other measures such as wearing a wide-brimmed hat and staying in the shade.
4. Don't leave children or pets in a car parked in the sunshine.
5. Be careful if you take medications that may affect your body's ability to stay hydrated.

A Special Note: Heat Exhaustion in Children

The symptoms of heat exhaustion in kids are basically the same as those in adults: dehydration, muscle cramping, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. Also, just as with adults, these are serious symptoms and if left untreated they can lead to a heat stroke, which can be deadly.

It’s extremely important to make sure kids stay hydrated, play in shaded areas, and limit time outdoors during the hottest times of the day (between about 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.).

Keeping your kids hydrated is key. Make sure they drink plenty of cool water both before they go outside to play and while they are outdoors. The recommended amount of water for a child is 7 cups of cold water per day for a child of 4 to 8 years old; 9 to 10 cups per day for kids 9 to 13 years old; and 10 cups per day for girls ages 14 to 18 and 14 cups per day for boys in the same age range. [4, 5]

If your child shows signs of heat exhaustion, take the same steps listed above to cool them down. If you suspect your child or infant is having a heat stroke, get medical help right away.

Key Takeaways

  • The difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion can be a little fuzzy, but basically, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.
  • Heat exhaustion symptoms include dehydration, a high body temperature of 104 F, nausea and vomiting, and dizziness.
  • A heat stroke can be deadly.
  • Staying hydrated is a key step to avoiding heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

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