Heat Emergencies

Written by Elea Carey | Published on July 30, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Are Heat Emergencies?

Heat emergencies are health crises caused by exposure to hot weather and sun. Heat emergencies have three stages: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heatstroke. All three stages are serious. If left untreated, the first two stages can lead to heatstroke, the most serious of all.

Call 911 or go to the emergency room if heat illness is causing vomiting, seizures, or unconsciousness.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heat Emergency?

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are the first stage of heat emergency. They usually happen in people who have been physically active in the heat. But they can also occur in people who have not been active.

Heat cramps are especially likely in the elderly or small children, overweight people, and people who have been drinking alcohol. The signs of heat cramps are muscle pain and tightness.

Heat Exhaustion

The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • muscle cramps
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • irritability
  • extreme thirst
  • nausea or vomiting
  • pale skin
  • heavy sweating
  • fainting

Heatstroke

In heatstroke, all the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion may be present, plus:

  • body temperature over 105 F
  • irrational behavior
  • confusion
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • rapid, weak pulse
  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness

Sweating may or may not be present in heatstroke. The Red Cross notes that a person who is experiencing heatstroke might have skin that feels very dry from dehydration (Red Cross, 2007).

Why Do Heat Emergencies Happen?

Heat emergencies usually occur when someone has exercised too much in hot weather. Being confined or trapped in a place that heats up, such as a car, is also a cause of heat emergencies.

Heat emergencies are more common in people who are overweight, those who have been drinking alcohol, the elderly, and children. These people have difficulty regulating their internal body temperature.

The Elderly and Heat Emergencies

The most common situation in which heat emergencies affect senior citizens is when someone elderly lives alone during a period of hot weather.

According to Eric Klinenberg, author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster (a study of 739 heat-related deaths in Chicago in 1995), elderly Chicagoans who lived alone yet made daily connections with their friends and families were much more likely to avoid a fatal heat emergency (Klinenberg, 2002).

If you know someone who is elderly, and your area is experiencing high temperatures, make sure to check on that person regularly, and offer to help him or her escape the heat if you can.

Children and Heat Emergencies

Children are especially vulnerable to heat emergencies. If they are playing in the heat, they might be having so much fun that they don’t recognize the warning signs. Check on children frequently in hot weather, and make sure they are offered plenty to drink.

A surprising number of children die from heat-related illnesses each year because they are left in cars or in other vehicles, such as school buses. Never leave children alone in a car, even if you think it is not hot enough for them to be harmed. Always check a bus or carpool to make sure no one is left behind.

How Are Heat Emergencies Treated?

There is a lot you can do to help yourself or someone else who is suffering from a heat emergency, especially the first two stages—cramping and exhaustion. There are three important things to remember:

  • call 911 or go to the emergency room if the heat emergency is causing vomiting, seizures, or unconsciousness
  • do not give the person anything to drink if he or she is vomiting or unconscious
  • never offer a drink containing alcohol or caffeine to someone experiencing a heat emergency

Treating Heat Cramps

  • move the person to a cooler area, out of direct sun
  • gently massage the cramping muscle
  • encourage the person to stretch the muscle gently
  • offer cool water or sports drinks every 15 minutes

Treating Heat Exhaustion

  • move the person to a cooler area, out of direct sun
  • loosen clothing
  • apply cool, wet towels to the face, neck, chest, and limbs
  • fan the person’s skin
  • offer cool water or sports drinks every 15 minutes
  • do not allow the person to drink too fast

Treating Heatstroke

Heatstroke is a life-threatening emergency. Call 911 or go to an emergency room immediately. In the meantime:

  • move the person to a cooler area, out of direct sun
  • loosen clothing
  • remove any sweaty clothing
  • apply cool, wet towels to the face, neck, chest, and limbs
  • apply ice, if you have it, to the underarms, wrists, and groin
  • fan the person’s skin
  • offer cool water or sports drinks every 15 minutes if the person is conscious

Potential Complications of Heat Emergencies

Most people recover from any stage of heat emergency in a few days. However, 20 percent of heatstroke survivors will have residual brain damage, and in some patients, kidney problems will persist (Beers, 2006).

How Can Heat Emergencies Be Prevented?

The best way to avoid a heat emergency is to stay in the shade or in a ventilated, air-conditioned area during the hottest part of the day. This is usually between 2:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. in the afternoon.

If you have to be outside during those times, take these precautions:

  • rest as often as possible
  • wear light-colored, loose clothing
  • drink water frequently
  • avoid alcohol

Help others prevent a heat emergency by checking frequently on the elderly and children.

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