Heat-Related Illness Prevention – Heat Cramps, Exhaustion, and Stroke

by Michael Tibus on June 8, 2012

It is that time of the year again when people become more active outdoors. Whether it is sports, work, or leisure activities we may have the tendency to forget just how serious and damaging the heat can be to us.

Our body temperature remains at a constant 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit regardless of the temperature around us. Even if are taking part in some vigorous activity on a hot day our body, amazingly, will make appropriate adjustments to increase heat radiation via sweating and its evaporation and by blood vessel dilation. When the body is exposed to more heat energy than it loses this is called hyperthermia; when the core body temperature increases to 101 degrees Fahrenheit.

When the body loses the ability to decrease body heat and is no longer able to tolerate the excessive heat, illness develops. High air temperature reduces the body’s ability to lose heat by radiation, high humidity reduces the body’s ability to lose heat via evaporation and vigorous exercise can cause the body to lose 1 liter of sweat an hour in which valuable fluids and electrolytes are lost. Illness from heat exposure can take three forms – 1) heat cramps 2) heat exhaustion and 3) heatstroke. Interestingly, a person can have all three because heat cramps will progress to exhaustion then to heatstroke. Here are some signs and symptoms to look for regarding each heat related illness.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are painful muscle spasms that occur after vigorous exercise. They can happen during any variation of temperature, not only when it is hot. They effect everybody even well-conditioned athletes. Strenuous exercise produces sweat which in turn causes an imbalance of the body’s electrolytes (salt). Dehydration may also cause muscle cramps. The loss of water affects the muscles that are being stressed causing them to spasm.

Heat cramps usually occur in the leg or abdominal muscles. When the abdominal muscles are affected, the pain may be so excruciating that it may appear to be an acute abdominal problem. However, if a person has been exercising and has a sudden onset of abdominal cramps, suspect it to be heat cramps.

Here are some effective ways to treat heat cramps: 1) go to a cooler place 2) rest the cramping muscle until the cramps subside and 3) replace the fluids using water or diluted (half strength) Gatorade. In most cases plain water is the most useful. Once the cramps have subsided the person can return to their activity of choice.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is the most common serious illness caused by heat. It is the result of the body losing so much water and so many electrolytes through heavy sweating that hypovolemia (fluid depletion) occurs. In order for sweating to be a cooling mechanism it has to be able to evaporate from the body. Otherwise, the body will continue to produce sweat, with further loss of body water. People who work or exercise vigorously and those who wear heavy clothing in a warm, humid, or poor ventilated environment are particularly prone to heat exhaustion.

Some symptoms for heat exhaustion are: 1) cold and sweaty skin 2) dry tongue and thirst 3) dizziness, weakness, or faintness accompanied with a headache or nausea and 4) the body temperature can be as high as 104 degrees Fahrenheit.

Some effective ways to treat heat exhaustion are: 1) lay down and elevate the legs 2) fan the person until cool and 3) drink up to a liter of water as long as nausea does not develop. In about 30 minutes the person will begin to feel better.


Heatstroke is the least common of the heat related illness but it is the most serious; it is a true emergency. Not only does the body temperature reach a height where the process to cool the body down is overwhelmed but body tissue is destroyed. If left untreated the result is death. The body temperature may be upwards of 106 degrees Fahrenheit or more. A person presents hot, dry, flushed skin because the body’s sweating mechanism has been compromised.

Some signs of heatstroke are 1) change of behavior resulting in unresponsiveness 2) the pulse becomes weak and 3) the blood pressure falls.

Here are some effective ways to treat heatstroke: 1) Get the person to an air conditioned environment immediately. 2) Remove any clothing and apply cool packs to the neck, groin, and armpits. 3) Cover the body with wet towels or sheets or spray the person with cool water. 4) Fan the person to quickly evaporate the dampness from the skin. This will help to cool the core temperature down.

We may not be affected by any of these heat related illnesses individually but it is nice to have a background on each of them so we can be ready to help someone else who may be suffering from them. And the reminders are always good for us personally so we can take care of ourselves while playing or working in a heated environment.

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