Heat illness symptoms and prevention

A good sunny day can be a great day for the beach or getting things done around the house, but we often don’t realize how deadly heat can be and how quickly it can affect you. We usually call it heat stroke, but that’s not entirely accurate. Heat stroke is just one of several threats known as “heat-related illness.” On average, 675 Americans die every year from preventable heat-related illness. Most of the dead are elderly, or infants, and children. But anyone who works or plays outdoors, those without adequate access to shelter, and people who have been weakened by medical conditions are also very much at risk.

Look Out For Yourself And Others

One good reason to be prepared for any eventuality is to have the ability to help others in a crisis. A hot summer day may not feel like a crisis to you, but it can be for others. Heat-related illness is most dangerous for children and the elderly, those who may not be able to recognize the signs and treat themselves. So it’s a kindness that may save lives to simply call or look in on relatives, friends and neighbors who may be at risk.

Know The Signs And Know What To Do

It’s not hard to recognize the signs of heat-related illness. We’ve all been there at one time or another. We’ll look at each category in order of severity, from the early warning signs to the life-threatening events, but the basic treatment is always the same:

  1. Stop all activity and rest in a cool, or at least shady, place to cool the body.
  2. Drink good fluids—water, juice, or electrolyte sports drinks.
  3. Determine whether medical attention is necessary.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are among the first signs of heat-related illness. When fluid loss from sweating and evaporation depletes the body’s salt and water reserves, muscles respond by cramping. Most often, this happens in the legs, arms, and midsection. It’s important to remember that these are not ordinary cramps, and that if left unaddressed, the sufferer will proceed rapidly towards life-threatening events.
To treat heat cramps, follow the basic steps and get the victim to a cooler place, drink plenty of good fluids, and allow the victim to rest. If you do these things but the cramps are still happening after an hour, seek medical attention and get the victim to drink more fluids.

Heat Fainting

Fainting or passing out from the heat is technically called “heat syncope.” This is often preceded by dizziness or nausea. Heat is the usual cause of syncope, but you can also feel this from a bad sunburn, even on an overcast day. Or, when you walk out into extreme heat from an air-conditioned build-ing, a wave of dizziness can strike. That’s a form of syncope, too. The solution to syncope is much the same as for all heat-related illness: rest—in a cool place, if possible—and drink more fluids. If the symptoms do not pass within an hour, seek medical attention.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is closely related to heat fainting—and fainting is usually part of a heat-exhaustion event. Heat exhaustion happens when the initial signs of heat-related ill-ness have been ignored and the body suffers excessive dehydration. Heat exhaustion strikes some people harder and faster than others. The elderly and those who are over-weight or have heart conditions or high blood pressure are particularly prone to heat exhaustion, so if someone you know is at greater risk, keep a closer eye on that. Heat exhaustion is characterized by extreme sweating and moist skin, weakness, dizziness or sleepiness, confusion, muscle cramps, and nausea or vomiting.

The victim may have a ruddy or pale look compared to normal, breathing may be fast and shallow, and he or she may be running a slight fever. The treatment is similar to the less severe symptoms, but immediate and more intense care is needed at this point. Get the victim to shade or indoors to a cool area. Offer them cool—but not cold—water, juice, or sports drink. Cool the victim by applying water-soaked cloths, or get the victim into a cool shower or bath. If possible, seek medical help immediately.

The Worst: Heat Stroke


When heat-related illness becomes immediately life threatening, we call it heat stroke. Heat stroke is when the victim’s ability to sweat breaks down, leading to severe body temperature spikes. A victim of heat stroke may have his or her body temperature rise to 106 degrees within minutes. Brain damage, organ damage, and death are imminent. Immediate first aid and medical attention are critical at this point. Everyone should recognize the signs of heat stroke.

Usually, a victim will have hot, dry skin, but in early stages they may still be sweating. Hallucinations, difficulty speaking, confusion, dizziness or fainting are also likely to be presented. Physically, the victim may be experiencing chills or pain, particularly headaches.
Time is critical when dealing with heat stroke. Call 911 (if available) immediately and inform the operator that you’re treating heat stroke. As with lesser heat maladies, get the victim into shade and cool their body by any means available. This may include soaking the victim with available water, or simply fanning them with cooler air. Victims may or may not be able to drink at this point. Medical care will be a necessity if at all possible.

If You’re Always Outdoors

People who are spending significant time outdoors are more likely to suffer from heat- related illness. Increased physical activity, lack of access to drinkable fluids, and no way to stay cool all contribute to greater danger from the heat. Here’s how to care for yourself before you are hit with heat-related illness:

  1. Drink water instead of anything with alcohol or soda. Sports drinks are okay. You need about a pint to a quart every hour. Start drinking before you feel hot and thirsty.
  2. Use sunscreen according to the recommendations on the package. Be sure to reapply it if you’re sweating. If you’re on the water, be aware that UV light reflects up from the water.
  3. Try to do strenuous work or travel in the early morning or at dusk when temperatures are cooler.
  4. Wear your hat, and preferably one with a wide brim all the way around. It really helps to keep your scalp, ears, neck, and face out of direct sun as much as possible.
  5. Find a place to stay cool in the heat of the day.

Beat The Heat

Human beings have survived in hot climates since the dawn of time. If we follow the basic rules that our grandparents knew before the existence of air conditioning, it’s quite possible to avoid heat-related illness. Most importantly, drink plenty of water and let your body’s cooling system work. Then be reasonable about what you choose to do in direct sunlight. When fighting the heat, a little common sense goes a long way.

Story and Photography by Jeff Zurschmeide

Editors Note: A version of this article first appeared in the December 2014 print issue of American Survival Guide.