After a long winter, it can be hard to remember that summer temperatures can get hot – really, really hot (even in the Midwest). And with rising temperatures, comes greater risks of heat-related illnesses.

Whether you’re relaxing on the beach, riding your bike or mowing the lawn, the heat can get to you during any outdoor activity. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms of both heat stroke and heat exhaustion, tips on how to stay cool and when to seek medical attention.

First, what is the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke?

While the two conditions are related, the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke is severity.

Heat exhaustion comes first and happens when your body isn’t able to cool itself down in a hot, humid environment. Two of the biggest contributing factors to heat exhaustion are not replacing the fluids lost through sweat (causing dehydration) and engaging in physical activity.

Heat stroke occurs when heat exhaustion goes untreated, and your body temperature rises above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat stroke, which is also referred to as sun stroke, can develop over hours or days, and is more serious than heat exhaustion. It requires immediate emergency medical attention as it can lead to organ failure and collapse, and death.

Heat exhaustion symptoms

While they’re related, heat exhaustion and heat stroke each have some distinct symptoms. Signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Heavy sweating
  • Cool and clammy skin
  • Irritability and occasionally confusion
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headache

The good news is that people can recover quickly from heat exhaustion if they take the right treatment steps.

If you’re feeling symptoms of heat exhaustion, go indoors to air conditioning and drink some room temperature water – room temperature water is easier for your body to process than cold water. Both these steps will help your body start to cool down and rehydrate.

Consuming electrolytes is also important. Electrolytes are essential minerals that help your body function. Waters or sports drinks infused with electrolytes, or foods such as bananas, nuts or dairy products are good options.

If you’re worried about someone who may not be able to get indoors, is confused, weak or falling asleep in the heat, call 911.

Who is most at risk for heat exhaustion?

Summer athletes, young children and the elderly are at the highest risk of heat exhaustion. Alcohol consumption and certain medicines – such as beta blockers, diuretics and antihistamines – can also put you at higher risk.

Heat stroke symptoms

When heat exhaustion progresses to heat stroke, symptoms become mostly neurological in nature. Signs of heat stroke include:

  • Hot, dry skin
  • Difficulty walking
  • Poor balance
  • Confusion and disorientation
  • Seizures (in severe cases)

How to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke

On very hot, humid days, try to stay in an air-conditioned, cool space and cancel outdoor events. If that’s not an option, here are some tips for preventing heat stroke and heat exhaustion:

  • Stay in the shade. This is particularly important when the sun is at its strongest – usually around midday. And if you can, postpone activities or avoid using heavy equipment when temperatures are high.
  • Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated is highly important on all summer days. Each morning, right after waking up, drink 16 ounces of water. Overall, you should aim for at least 6-8 glasses of water every day – or more when you exercise. Try to drink 5-10 ounces of water every 15-20 minutes during a workout.
  • Avoid strenuous activity.While it may be possible to do lighter forms of exercise if you’re taking steps to do it safely, avoid doing anything that puts a large amount of strain on your body – such as heavy weightlifting.
  • Use a portable fan at outdoor events. Fans can help your body cool down quicker and more effectively.
  • Wear appropriate clothing.Choose clothing that is made of thinner, lighter materials to help your body stay cool.
  • Know the signs and symptoms.Being aware of the symptoms of heat stroke and acting quickly can be lifesaving.

Heat stroke treatment

Heat stroke requires immediate medical treatment. Call 911 if you believe someone is experiencing heat stroke.

If you notice symptoms of heat exhaustion, you can prevent it from progressing to heat stroke by doing the following:

  • Move to a cool, well-ventilated place
  • Loosen tight clothing and remove heavy clothing
  • Apply ice packs or cold compresses to your neck, armpits and groin
  • Drink cool water or a sports drink
  • Immerse yourself in cool water

If symptoms don’t improve within an hour, seek medical attention. If you’re waiting for medical assistance with someone experiencing heat stroke, use as many of these methods as possible to cool their body. Additionally, mist their body with water and blow air across it.

Learn more about heat-related illnesses