What is the Difference Between Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke?

As the heat index rises, so does the chance for heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Being active outside, not drinking enough fluids or certain health issues and medications all increase the chance for heat related illnesses, which range in various stages, with heatstroke being the most severe and requiring emergency medical attention. All ages can be affected by heat illnesses but they especially impact the elderly and young.

Heatstroke follows two less serious heat-related conditions: Heat cramps are caused by initial exposure to high temperatures or physical exertion. Signs and symptoms include excess sweating, fatigue, thirst and cramps, usually in the stomach, arms or legs. This condition is common in very hot weather or with moderate to heavy physical activity. Treatment includes drinking water or fluids containing electrolytes, like Gatorade, resting and getting to a cool spot, like a shaded or air-conditioned area.

If heat cramps is not treated properly, the condition will worsen into heat exhaustion. Symptoms include a headache, dizziness or lightheadedness, nausea, skin that feels cool and moist, and muscle cramps. Treatment measure are often the same as heat cramps, such as drinking cool, nonalcoholic beverages, getting into an air-conditioned area or taking a cool shower. If symptoms persist, seek medical attention immediately.

Heatstroke is caused by prolonged exposure to high temperatures or by doing physical activity in hot weather. In heat stroke, the body temperature reaches 104 degrees or higher. Symptoms include high body temperature, lack of sweating, nausea and vomiting, flushed skin, rapid breathing, rapid heartbeat, headache, confusion, unconsciousness and muscle cramps or weakness.

Emergency treatment is needed to treat heatstroke. Call 911 or other healthcare provider and take measures to cool the patient down until help arrives. In a period of hours, untreated heatstroke can damage the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. These injuries get worse the longer treatment is delayed, increasing the risk of serious complications or death.

Take measures to prevent heatstroke by prevent heatstroke during hot weather by wearing loose-fitting, lightweight clothing; wearing light-colored clothing if in the sun; drinking plenty of non-alcoholic fluids; and taking precautions with certain medications that can affect the body from staying hydrated.

By  Gilbert Burgstede, MD, a family physician at ThedaCare Physicians-Waupaca.