Knowing the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke

Published: Jun. 20, 2023 at 6:55 AM CDT
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Lake Charles, LA (KPLC) - Being out in the Louisiana heat this summer can be dangerous that’s why it’s important to know what to look out for when it comes to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Both have similar symptoms but spotting the difference is crucial for treatment.

Both of these heat-related illnesses are common in people who are exposed to heat and don’t have proper hydration.

Mathew Vincent is a nurse practitioner with Memorial Hospital in Lake Charles and says heat exhaustion is the beginning stages of what could eventually become a heat stroke.

“You will sweat profusely use, lose a significant amount of water and your muscles will become sort of dehydrated, you’ll begin to cramp in the large areas of your body, you become nauseous dizzy, and have a headache,” said Vincent.

According to him, it takes about one week to build up a tolerance to the heat outside so it’s a good idea to take the proper steps to acclimate your body beforehand. During this time, make sure you’re drinking two bottles of water before bed the night before and avoid consuming alcohol.

“Being hungover and dehydrated puts you at a huge risk,” said Vincent.

Another nurse practitioner at Memorial Hospital, Trace Herbert, says that hydration is key, “I usually recommend to my patients a bottle of water which is about 16 to 20 ounces every twenty minutes that you’re outside exposed to the hot sun”.

Heat exhaustion is considered the beginning stage of heat stroke. Those symptoms include:

  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Pale or clammy skin
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Headache

Someone who begins to experience heat exhaustion needs to make cooling off their main priority. Vincent and Herbert said if you are outside and start to show these signs, it’s a good idea to move to a shaded area, preferably where there is a fan, and drink plenty of water. But you should avoid going immediately to a cold environment.

“It would be better to drink room temperature water because cold water could be a shock to your system,” says Herbert. Consuming cold water when your body is in that state can drop your heart rate and harm your body.

A person experiencing heat exhaustion that is unable to cool down will begin to suffer heat stroke.

Vincent says if you start experiencing a heat stroke you will no longer be able to sweat, may start vomiting, and will run a high fever.

“People don’t think about this very often but carry a thermometer because if you check someone’s temperature and it’s above 101 and they’re not ill, they’re beginning to have heat stroke those people need to go to an emergency room or see a medical provider quickly.”

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • High temperature
  • Throbbing headache
  • Overly dry or damp skin
  • Rapid strong pulse
  • Loss of consciousness

Once a person begins to experience heat stroke they will need quick treatment to reduce damage to their brain and vital organs. The first thing you should do is seek emergency medical care such as calling 911 or immediately taking them to the hospital.

If you are waiting for paramedics to arrive, it’s best to try and move the person to a cool or air-conditioned environment and remove any unnecessary clothing on the person. Then try to cool them down by fanning them, wetting their skin with cool water, or applying ice packs to the person’s armpits, groin, neck, and/or back.