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Cardiologist, author, and heart health expert Dr. Sarah Samaan offers advice on how to live a heart smart life.

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Heat Stroke or Heat Exhaustion: What You Need to Know

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With the summer sun blazing down in full force, heat exposure is a hot topic indeed. 

Our bodies are capable of adapting to the heat, but it can take several weeks for that process to kick in. And since most Americans living in hot climates spend the better part of the day indoors with the air conditioner cranked up, many of us never really acclimate.

While most cases of overheating can be easily remedied with a glass of cold water and a blast of cool air, heat exhaustion and heatstroke may be life-threatening. Learn the symptoms and warning signs to keep yourself and your family safe this summer. 

Heat exhaustion often begins with dehydration. The core body temperature may be normal, although in some cases it may climb as high as 103 degrees. Symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Heart palpitations
  • Muscle cramps

Treatment of heat exhaustion starts with moving the individual to a cooler area. Wetting the skin to allow evaporative cooling can help. If the symptoms are mild, fluids enhanced with sodium (such as sports drinks) can help. Straight water can often make things worse, since sodium and other electrolyte levels may be dangerously low, and water will further dilute the blood stream. Because heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, it’s important to seek medical attention as quickly as possible.

Heat stroke often presents with symptoms of confusion and is a true medical emergency. A person must be cooled down and taken to an emergency room without delay. Whenever possible, call 911 immediately. Placing icepacks around the neck, on the scalp, under the arms, and in the groin areas can help cool the victim more rapidly, although oral fluids should be avoided in order to protect the victim’s airway. If not treated quickly, heatstroke can result in kidney failure, liver failure, life threatening heart rhythm disturbances, and death. Core body temperature is typically 104 degrees or higher.

Although some people with heatstroke will stop sweating, up to half may continue to sweat. Symptoms are the same as for heat exhaustion, but may also include:

  • Confusion
  • Difficulty walking or moving
  • Seizures
  • Coma

While heat exhaustion and heatstroke may happen to anyone, older folks with chronic medical conditions and infants are at the greatest risk. Other factors that may contribute include:

  • Alcohol use
  • Illicit drugs (especially cocaine and amphetamines)
  • Blood pressure medications
  • Antidepressant drugs
  • Diuretics and laxatives

 

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Tags: Stress and the Heart

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About the Author


MD, FACC

Dr. Samaan is an acclaimed cardiologist, writer, and heart health educator.

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