Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke: What’s the Difference?

Summers are getting hotter, and extreme heat is becoming more common across the United States. Blistering heat and record-high temperatures increase your risk of serious heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke, but what’s the difference?

The main difference between heat exhaustion vs. heat stroke is that heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness and can be fatal. It’s important to understand the warning signs of dehydration and heat exhaustion as well as how to treat them so you can avoid heat stroke.

Heat exhaustion vs. heat stroke

Both heat exhaustion and heat stroke are serious conditions. Heat exhaustion begins with general muscle weakness, sudden excessive sweating, nausea and vomiting, and possible fainting. A heat stroke is when your body’s internal temperature reaches over 103 degrees.

Signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion and dehydration go hand in hand. Dehydration is a depletion or imbalance of fluids or electrolytes in the body. Heat exhaustion often occurs when dehydration is combined with extended exposure to sun or heat. Warning signs of heat exhaustion may include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Paleness
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Fainting

The first and most important thing to do when faced with the symptoms of heat exhaustion is to quickly cool the body by drinking chilled, nonalcoholic beverages. It’s also important to rest, take a cool shower or bath, find an air-conditioned environment, and change into lightweight, loose-fitting clothing. If you are unable to relocate or change clothing, hydrate, pour cool water on your head and body, seek shade and loosen any constricting pieces of clothing. When you cool the body down, you can stop heat exhaustion from advancing to a stroke.

Signs and symptoms of heat stroke

Heat stroke occurs when the body is unable to control its own temperature and stops producing sweat. This illness can lead to death or permanent disability, so it is crucial to seek urgent medical care and move to a shaded or air-conditioned area and begin cooling the body down rapidly. This can be done using anything from a garden hose to a tub of cool water.

Continue cooling efforts until the body temperature falls below 102 degrees Fahrenheit. Warning signs of heat stroke may include:

  • Extremely high body temperature
  • Lack of sweating despite the heat
  • Skin that is red, hot and dry
  • Rapid, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

Risk factors

Certain risk factors may increase your risk for heat exhaustion and heat stroke; however, anyone can develop either condition. The following things can increase your risk for heat sensitivity:

  • Age
    Infants, children under the age of 4 and adults over the age of 65 have an increased risk of heat-related illnesses because it’s more difficult to regulate body temperature at these ages.
  • Medications
    Some prescription medications used to treat hypertension or heart conditions may reduce the body’s ability to stay hydrated. Dehydration is a leading cause of heat exhaustion.
  • Weight
    Excess body fat retains heat, so it can be more difficult to cool down if you are overweight or obese.
  • Travel
    Your body may not be able to adjust adequately when traveling from a cooler climate to a warmer or more humid one. As a result, your body may have a difficult time regulating your body temperature, which puts you at risk for heat exhaustion.

Treatment

There are differences in how you should treat heat exhaustion vs. heat stroke. If you begin experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion, find a cooler location (a shaded or air-conditioned area) as soon as possible, remove a layer of clothing, soak in a tub of cool water and slowly drink cool water or a sugar-free sports drink with electrolytes. If symptoms do not subside within 15 minutes of cooling efforts seek urgent medical care as you may be at risk for heat stroke.

If you or someone you know is showing any of the above warning signs or symptoms of heat stroke, visit Coastal Urgent Care of Ruston for IV fluid hydration. One of our skilled physicians will quickly assess your symptoms, medical history and determine the appropriate fluids to treat your condition. This may include one to two liters of intravenous (IV) fluids such as saline, sodium, chlorine, dextrose and electrolytes. IV fluids and rest should resolve your symptoms quickly and fully rehydrate your body within a few hours. We are open for walk-in appointments 7 days/week (Mon-Fri 8 a.m. – 7 p.m., Sat-Sun 9 a.m. – 6 p.m.).