It’s just heat exhaustion … or is it?

Have you ever lost time while out in the sun, enjoying activities with friends and family, and you started to feel sick to your stomach, or a little lightheaded? So, you slow down, grab some water and a restful chair in the shade and hope it goes away. But it doesn’t. You may have experienced heatstroke. Studies suggest that heatstroke occurs in about 20 out of 100,000 people each year in the US and is most common in urban areas during periods of very hot weather. Heatstroke causes between 240 and 833 deaths in the US annually. This is not something to just brush off like the pesky black flies.

First let’s talk about the difference between heat exhaustion and heatstroke and the symptoms of each.

Heat Exhaustion
Heat exhaustion often happens before heatstroke. Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to an excessive loss of water and salt, usually through excessive sweating. Heat exhaustion is most likely to affect the elderly, people with high blood pressure, or those working in a hot environment.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Irritability
  • Thirst
  • Heavy sweating
  • Elevated body temperature
  • Decreased urine output

Heatstroke is a serious heat-related illness, more than heat exhaustion. It occurs when the body can no longer control its temperature: the body’s temperature rises rapidly, the sweating mechanism fails, and the body is unable to cool down. When heatstroke occurs, the body temperature can rise to 106°F or higher within 10 to 15 minutes. Heatstroke can cause permanent disability or death if the person does not receive emergency treatment.
Symptoms of heatstroke include:

  • Confusion, altered mental status, slurred speech
  • Loss of consciousness (coma)
  • Hot, dry skin or profuse sweating
  • Seizures
  • Very high body temperature

The good news is you can prevent heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Take these steps to prevent heatstroke during hot weather:

  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing.
  • Protect against sunburn.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Take extra precautions with certain medications. Ask your provider if your medications can affect your body's ability to stay hydrated and tolerate heat.
  • Never leave anyone (human or pet) in a parked car.
  • Take it easy during the hottest parts of the day.
  • Get acclimated. It can take several weeks for your body to adjust to hot weather. People not used to hot weather are especially susceptible to heat-related illnesses.
  • Be cautious if you're at increased risk. If you take medications or have a condition that increases your risk of heat-related problems, avoid the heat and act quickly if you notice symptoms of overheating.

If you're with someone who has heat exhaustion or heatstroke, seek immediate medical help if they become confused or distressed, lose consciousness, or are unable to drink. With these tips and awareness, you can avoid missing out on a great Maine summer day!

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