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Drew: The Difference Between Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion

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By Samuetta Hill Drew


During the heat of the August sun it is important to know and understand the differences between heat exhaustion and a heatstroke.  Knowledge of these differences is critical on so many potentially life altering levels. One of the key factors which should be remembered is that your children should also know and understand these differences because many children walk back and forth to school daily, while others ride bikes to school and many others engage in school outdoor sports and activities.

To sufficiently provide the depth of this topic, the information will be divided into two parts. We will begin with the basic definitions along with the various signs and symptoms of each.

It’s important to understand heat exhaustion and heatstroke are both illnesses caused by exposure to extreme heat. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can develop into a heatstroke which has the potential to be life-threatening.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states that “above-average temperatures or unusually humid weather kills more than 600 people in the United States each year.”

As the temperatures begin to soar during August and the first part of September in our area of the country, it’s important to know how to avoid these two heat-related illnesses. Note: Some refer to a heatstroke as a sun stroke.

A heatstroke is the most serious of the two. It happens most frequently when one’s body temperature rises to 104° Fahrenheit or higher. It then becomes a life-threatening emergency because the body’s natural cooling system has been stopped.

Heatstroke symptoms include the body temperature of 104°F or higher, hot, dry skin, a racing heartbeat, confusion, agitation, slurred speech, nausea, headache, dizziness, seizures, loss of consciousness, decreased urination or a coma. There are two different types of heatstroke – exertional and non-exertional.

Exertional heatstroke happens usually when a person’s body can no longer adapt to rising temperatures while exercising or working.  This condition can occur within a few hours and typically affect individuals who spend time outdoors.

Non-exertional heatstroke occurs in those individuals who can’t adapt well to increasingly hot temperatures. People who often fall into this category are older people with chronic illnesses or infants. Note: Spending time in closed cars puts children and pets at a higher risk of heatstroke.

Heat exhaustion is less serious than a heatstroke but if left unattended can develop into a heatstroke. Anyone who feels they are having heat exhaustion should immediately rest, hydrate and retreat to a cool location in air conditioning or in the shade. If their symptoms don’t improve the individual should seek medical attention immediately. It can occur over a few days.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include a fever under 104°F, muscle cramping, a rapid, weak pulse, a general sense of weakness, nausea or vomiting, excessive sweating, cold, excessive thirst, damp clammy skin, dizziness, fainting, dark-colored urine, and headaches. Remember a heatstroke may begin with heat exhaustion symptoms and rapidly worsen.

There are two types of heat exhaustion – water depletion and salt depletion. Water depletion signs are excessive thirst, weakness, headache and loss of consciousness. Salt depletion signs are nausea and vomiting, along with muscle or stomach cramps and dizziness.

It is essential to point out that by Keeping an Eye on Safety on these two heat related illnesses, a person can fully recover from either if treatment is provided in a timely fashion.