Athletic girl exercising outside in the heat and sun

Am I too hot? Heat illness explained

Share this story now

Summer in Texas means one thing: If you plan to spend any time outside, you will get sweaty. Avoiding the heat isn’t an option; avoiding heat illness is.

“Heat illness is extremely common, especially in our part of the world because of the high temperatures and humidity,” says Ketan Trivedi, MD, emergency medicine physician on the medical staff at Methodist Mansfield Medical Center. “And if people don’t recognize the symptoms, the illness will continue to progress, leading up to heatstroke.”

Am I too hot?

When it gets toasty outside, we start to sweat. The body is trying to regulate its temperature within a safe range. Cooling mechanisms include an increased heart rate, the familiar sweating, and flushed cheeks as more blood rises to the skin’s surface. If steps are taken to cool down at this point, symptoms will not progress into anything more serious.

If you’re lightheaded, abnormally fatigued, have muscle cramps, are feeling faint, or have a headache or tunnel vision, you’re on your way to a heat-induced illness. Stop any physical activity, get to a cool place, and start rehydrating.

Stages of heat illness

Heat illness progresses in stages from manageable symptoms to a full-on emergency. Here’s a breakdown of those stages and the symptoms to note.

Beginning stages. These stages are characterized by heat edema, or swelling of the legs and feet. For some people, this edema then leads to heat rash.
What to do: Simply moving to the shade or air conditioning can clear up these symptoms pretty quickly.

Middle stages. As illness progresses, people experience heat cramps. You see this symptom most often with those who have been exercising in the heat. Tetany, the loss of electrolytes, also begins. Symptoms include cramping in fingers and toes as well as a tingling feeling in the face, arms, and legs.
What to do: Get inside or to a shaded area quickly to help bring down body temperature and avoid sun exposure.

Late stages. This is where things get serious. When someone is in the heat for too long and has become dehydrated, there is a drop in blood pressure. This is dangerous because it’s when people begin fainting, which can lead to head injuries or other consequences of collapsing.
What to do: Get to a shaded or air-conditioned area quickly, and slowly begin drinking cool water — not ice cold water, as this can be a shock to the system.

The final stages. The last two stages of heat illness are the most dangerous: heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Both are caused by severe dehydration and prolonged exposure to high temperatures.

“With heat exhaustion, the body can still use the mechanisms in place to cool itself down,” Dr. Trivedi says. “The barrier between exhaustion and stroke is about 104 degrees, but the hallmark sign of heatstroke is a change in mental status.”

Heat exhaustion has most likely escalated to heatstroke when someone is not alert and very confused. The condition becomes life-threatening at this point as organ function starts to fail.

What to do: Call 911 or get to a hospital.

An added caution for parents

Dr. Trivedi warns that for children, their bodies can’t adapt to high temperatures as well as adult’s bodies can, so they will reach these final, dangerous stages of heat illness much faster than adults — in fact, in a matter of minutes. That’s why you should never leave a child or pet in a car, even when it doesn’t feel that warm outside.

“When the outside temperature is 93 degrees, inside of a car can reach 125 degrees in just 20 minutes,” he says. “Heat illness in children will develop very quickly and then progress very rapidly to heat stroke. Various organs can start to fail, causing severe illness, permanent disability, or even death.”

How to keep it cool

While there are things that you can do when heat illness starts, there are also things you can do to keep it from starting in the first place. Try these simple ways to stay ahead of heat illness and proactively keep yourself cool:

  • Drink a few glasses of water a couple hours ahead of being outside in the heat, especially if you’re going to be doing physical activity, such as jogging or yardwork.
  • While active, increase your water intake to two to four 8-ounce glasses an hour.
  • In addition to water, add sports drinks with carbohydrates and electrolytes to avoid losing too much sodium, which affects kidneys and causes fatigue and weakness.
  • Wear light clothing in both color and weight.
  • If you are wearing pads or another constricting uniform, take it off as soon as you start to feel overheated.
  • Ice packs and iced towels are helpful. Place around the back of the neck, in the underarms, or near the groin for the fastest effect.
  • Spraying a mist of cool water can also help.

Most important, just be aware. Keep hydration in mind, and don’t try to power through dizziness. Help those around you if they start showing symptoms of heat exhaustion. Heat illness is easily preventable — so stay cool!

In the case of heat exhaustion, seek help from one of our Methodist Urgent Care centers. If you suspect heat stroke, call 911 or head to the nearest emergency room.