Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion - What are the Signs?

As the temperature continues to climb, the dangers of the hot sun rise as well. Knowing the signs and symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion and acting fast to receive medical attention can make a large difference in the recovery from either condition.

What are the causes of heat stroke and heat exhaustion?

The primary cause of any heat-related condition is the inability for the body to cool itself. Your body uses sweat to regulate temperature. In extreme temperatures or periods of over-exertion, your body may not be able to maintain sweat production levels needed to keep the body cool.

Other contributing causes for heat-related illnesses may also include dehydration, alcohol consumption and wearing improper (heavy or tight) clothing.

What are the symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion?

While both conditions are cause for concern, heat stroke can be much more serious. Often, muscle cramping may be the first sign of a heat-related illness. In addition to this, any of the following symptoms may also occur:

Heat Exhaustion

  • Overall weakness and fatigue
  • Possible fainting
  • Nausea/Vomiting
  • Increased/heavy sweating
  • A weakened fast pulse/heart rate
  • Cold, pale and clammy skin
  • Headache

Heat Stroke

  • Body temperature above 103F
  • Hot, red skin (could be dry or moist)
  • Strong, Fast pulse/heart rate
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Confusion
  • Dilated pupils


Your doctor may diagnose your condition based on symptoms, but may also choose to run some tests to check for possible complications. Some of these tests may include:

  • Blood tests – your doctor may look at your potassium levels to check for dehydration
  • Urine Tests –dark urine is an indicator of dehydration
  • Kidney & muscle function tests – Left untreated, heat stroke can lead to kidney and muscle damage.


If you begin to experience symptoms of heat exhaustion, there are a few steps you can take to try to allow your body to recover and begin regulating your temperature again.

  • You should try to move quickly to a cooler, shaded or air-conditioned location.
  • Try to remove any excess layers of clothing.
  • Drink water or a sports drink to help rehydrate your body.
  • Lie down if possible and avoid any strenuous activities.

In the event you become nauseated or vomit, seek medical attention right away. Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency. Your doctor may:

  • Mist your skin with cool water
  • Pack you in ice packs or use a specialized medical cooling blanket
  • Place you in an ice bath
  • Prescribe medication

Risk Factors

While anyone can develop heat exhaustion or heat stroke, there are a few risk factors that may increase your risk.

  • Age – Children under 4 and adults over age 65 are at an increased risk for heat-related illness.
  • Medications – Some prescription medications may increase your risk for dehydration which can lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
  • High Heat Index – When the humidity level is high, sweat evaporates more quickly which leads to an increased risk of heat-related illnesses. Any heat index greater than 91F is considered in the high range.
  • Obesity – Your body retains more heat and has a more difficult time regulating temperature when you are overweight.


As obvious as it may sound, keeping your body temperature cool is the main way to prevent heat-related illness. A few ideas:

  • Remain well hydrated – If you are outside in the sun and heat, aim to consume 2-4 cups of water every hour.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol – both increase your risk for dehydration
  • Avoid the hottest parts of the day and try to stay in indirect or shaded sunlight
  • Choose light-colored, loose and lightweight clothing
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat
  • Try a cool shower or bath to help keep you cool
  • Take frequent breaks
  • Never leave children, adults or pets in a parked car. The temperature can become dangerously hot very quickly.

We look forward to summer activities all year, but it is very important that we take the necessary precautions and plan our activities to also keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and healthy.

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Written By: S. Campbell for Access Health Care Physicians, LLC. 

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