Heat-related illnesses are serious. But it’s easy to confuse two of the most common ones. That’s because it can be difficult to understand and people often ask: “What is the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke?”
When the temperature reaches dangerous levels, your body temperature can do the same. This is especially true if you’re working or exercising in the heat. The nervous system regulates body temperature and when it cannot transfer enough heat through sweat to keep the body cool, health complications may arise.
You can develop an elevated body temperature rather quickly when it’s very hot, so it is best to take precautions to prevent this. The first step is to help you figure out what is the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
If you’re wondering what is the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke, the short answer is: not much. They are both serious heat-related illnesses that often require immediate medical attention.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body loses too much water and salt through excessive sweating. Heat exhaustion is usually caused by exposure to high temperatures, especially with high humidity, and strenuous activities.
People who are most at risk for heat exhaustion include:
- Infants and children younger than 4
- Adults older than 65
It’s a big concern for babies and young children because the body's ability to regulate temperature isn't fully developed. If you’re an older adult, your body’s ability to regulate temperature may be affected by illness, medications or other factors.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- pale, cool and moist skin.
If you start experiencing the signs of heat exhaustion there are some things you should do. The first thing to do is to get out of the heat immediately, preferably to an air-conditioned room. If getting inside is not possible, depending on your location, find the nearest shady spot and rest there.
Other recommended strategies include:
- Drink plenty of fluids, preferably cool water.
- Remove any tight or unnecessary clothing.
- If inside, take a cool (not ice cold) shower or bath, or sponge bath.
- It’s also helpful to run your wrists under cool water.
Watch the time to see if these cooling methods provide any relief within a 15-minute window. If they don’t, seek emergency help immediately, because moderate to severe heat exhaustion can sometimes lead to heat stroke.
Also known as sunstroke, heat stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention. At this point your body is unable to control its temperature. The mechanism that controls sweating fails, your body is unable to cool down and your core temperature quickly rises.
It is the most serious condition related an the most recent statistics back this up:
- It is among the leading causes of death in young adults and teens because it commonly occurs during practices and sporting events outdoors.
- There has been an increase in the number of heat stroke deaths since the year 2000 with the elderly still making up the majority of heat stroke deaths.
- Over 9,000 documented heat stroke deaths occurred between 1979 and 2013.
Heat stroke can develop without exertion. Even when a person is just exposed to a hot environment. A prime example of this is occurs most often in:
- Older adults
- People with chronic health problems.
This is why it is extremely important to stay hydrated in the heat. Also be aware of the signs of heat stroke. The symptoms of heat stroke can include:
- The absence of sweating
If you, or someone you know, is showing signs of heat stroke, you’ll require immediate medical attention. While you’re waiting for an ambulance to arrive, there are some things you can do to help. Things like:
- Getting the person to a shaded area
- Removing some of their clothes
- Lightly spraying them with water
- Try to get them to drink water
- Fan them to cool them off
To prevent heat stroke always drink lots of water in hot weather, or sports drinks. You should also take frequent breaks if you’re working in the heat.
Hopefully, the next time someone asks: “What is the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke?” You will have a better understanding. But heat exhaustion and heat stroke aren’t the only summertime health concerns that should be on your radar. Our “Summer Safety Survival Guide” is packed with information on some of the others and how you can take care of yourself all summer long.