Heat Emergencies: Causes, Symptoms & Treatments
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Heat Emergencies

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 of heat emergency are serious.

If you live in hot climates or play sports in the summertime, you should know how to spot the symptoms of heat emergency. Getting treatment in the early stages of this condition can prevent heat stroke. Heat stroke can be fatal or cause lifelong complications.

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?

Symptoms

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are the first stage of heat emergency. They usually happen when you’ve been physically active in the heat, but they can also occur if you haven’t been active.

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

Heat Exhaustion

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • muscle cramps
  • dizziness
  • mild confusion
  • fast heart rate or breathing
  • headache
  • irritability
  • extreme thirst
  • nausea or vomiting
  • pale skin
  • heavy sweating
  • fainting

Heatstroke

With heatstroke, all the symptoms of heat exhaustion may be present, plus:

  • body temperature over 104°F
  • irrational behavior or hallucinations
  • confusion
  • rapid, shallow breathing
  • rapid, weak pulse
  • seizures
  • loss of consciousness
  • dry skin

Sweating may be present in heatstroke. A person who is experiencing heatstroke might have very dry skin from dehydration.

Why Do Heat Emergencies Happen?

Risk Factors

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
  • people who have been drinking alcohol
  • older adults
  • children

These risk factors are due to difficulty regulating the internal body temperature.

Older Adults and Heat Emergencies

During a period of hot weather, older adults who live alone are at particular risk for heat emergencies.

A study of 739 heat-related deaths in Chicago in 1995 found that older adults who lived alone but made daily connections with their friends and families were much more likely to avoid a fatal heat emergency.

If your area is experiencing high temperatures, make sure to regularly check on older adults and offer to help them escape the heat if you can.

Children and Heat Emergencies

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

Children can also die from heat-related illnesses when they’re left in cars or other vehicles, such as school buses. Never leave a child alone in a car — even if you think it’s 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?

Treatment

You can help yourself or others experiencing a heat emergency — especially the first two stages, cramping and exhaustion. Remember these three important things:

  1. Call 911 or go to the emergency room if the heat emergency is causing vomiting, seizures, or unconsciousness.
  2. Don’t give the person anything to drink if they’re vomiting or unconscious.
  3. Never offer a drink containing alcohol or caffeine to someone experiencing a heat emergency.

Heat Cramps

If you or someone you know is experiencing heat cramps, you should:

  • Move to a cooler area, out of direct sunlight.
  • Gently massage the cramping muscle.
  • Stretch the muscle gently.
  • Drink cool water or sports drinks every 15 minutes.

Heat Exhaustion

To treat heat exhaustion, you should:

  • Move to a cooler area, out of direct sunlight.
  • Loosen clothing.
  • Apply cool, wet towels to your face, neck, chest, and limbs.
  • Have someone fan your skin.
  • Drink cool water or sports drinks every 15 minutes.
  • Don’t drink too quickly.

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 sunlight.
  • 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

Complications Icon

Most people recover from any stage of heat emergency in a few days. However, vital organs like your brain may begin to swell during heat stoke. This can lead to permanent damage.

How Can Heat Emergencies Be Prevented?

Prevention

The best way to avoid a heat emergency is to stay in the shade or in a ventilated, air-conditioned area during the hottest parts of the day.

If you have to be outside during those times, take precautions. For example:

  • Rest as often as possible.
  • Wear light-colored, loose clothing.
  • Drink water frequently.
  • Avoid alcohol.

Help prevent a heat emergency in others by checking frequently on older adults and children.

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