As we head into the hot California summer, it’s important to keep heat safety in mind. There are multiple types of heat-related illnesses ranging in severity from heat rash to heat stroke. These illnesses happen when excessive heat increases your body’s core temperature and your body isn’t able to cool itself down. In this article, we’ll break down the descriptions and symptoms of 4 types of heat illnesses, how to care for them, and what you can do to prevent them.
The 4 most common heat illnesses are:
- heat rash
- heat cramps
- heat exhaustion
- heat stroke
A heat rash is a mild form of heat illness that occurs when your sweat glands are blocked and sweat is trapped beneath the skin. Also known as “prickly heat” and “miliaria”, it commonly affects children and sometimes adults, especially in hot, humid conditions where sweat evaporates very slowly.
Symptoms of heat rash include:
- Red skin
- Itchy skin
- A tingling or “prickly” pain
- Small bumps or blisters, particularly in areas of skin-on-skin contact or that stay wet when you sweat (neck, groin, armpits, inner elbow, and upper chest)
It’s important to know how to care for these illnesses and when to seek professional care. To treat heat rash, you should:
Move to a cooler area, if possible – ideally indoors and air-conditioned. It’s important to cool off the skin. Apply cold compresses to the area and try to keep the skin dry. Also, although heat rash may look similar to other skin rashes, don’t apply any products that could block your pores. This includes baby powder, rash creams, or ointments.
Heat rash usually goes away once the skin cools down, but more severe forms of the condition might require treatment from a health care provider. If the rash doesn’t go away after three to four days, or if it seems to be getting worse, visit your doctor or an urgent care to be evaluated. Our providers can examine your skin and suggest further care.
Heat cramps are painful, involuntary muscle spasms. Though a milder form of heat illness, they can be temporarily debilitating and can escalate to a more severe condition if left untreated. They occur when you lose so much fluid and salt through excessive sweating that your muscles start to cramp. Typically, they are brought about by strenuous activity in hot environments.
Symptoms of heat cramps include:
- Muscle pain in the legs, arms, back, or abdomen
- Muscle spasms in the legs, arms, back, or abdomen
- Profuse sweating
- Cool, moist skin
Heat cramps may stop on their own, but taking immediate action can lessen their severity. It can also stop them from becoming something more serious. To care for heat cramps, you should:
Stop all activity and move to a cool place to rest. Try to cool the skin by removing excess clothing and placing cool cloths on particularly warm or exposed areas. Drink sports beverages containing salt and sugar to replenish your electrolytes. Stretch cramped muscles slowly and gently.
Though you can treat heat cramps yourself and avoid further heat illness, you should seek medical help if the cramps last longer than 1 hour or if you have more severe symptoms of heat illness. This includes dizziness, fatigue, vomiting, headache, fast heartbeat, shortness of breath, or a high temperature (greater than 104 degrees).
A more severe form of heat illness is heat exhaustion. This is a condition that occurs when the body overheats and can’t cool itself down. High temperatures, dehydration, and/or strenuous physical activity are all contributing factors of this illness. Without prompt treatment, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke.
Symptoms of heat cramps include:
- Quick, shallow breathing
- Heavy sweating and elevated body temperature
- Dehydration (thirst, decrease in urination, dark urine)
- Muscle cramps
- Weak, quick pulse
- Moist, cool, and pale skin
- Nausea, vomiting and diarrhea
- Headache, dizziness, weakness, lack of coordination and fainting
It’s important to treat heat exhaustion as soon as possible before it develops into a medical emergency. To care for heat exhaustion, you should:
Stop all activity and move to a cool place to rest. Try to cool the skin by removing any excess clothing so as much skin is exposed to the air as possible. Use fans or cool cloths to further cool the body. Drink plenty of fluids such as water or sports drinks containing salt and sugar.
Following these steps may be enough to alleviate your condition. However, if your symptoms don’t improve after 30 minutes or if you are throwing up and unable to ingest fluids, then you should seek medical help immediately. The physicians here at Haven Elite can evaluate your condition, perform blood and urine tests, and provide treatment such as IV fluids.
Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness. It’s a medical emergency that can lead to damage of your brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles. Heat stroke occurs when the core temperature quickly increases and the body is unable to cool itself. High heat, humidity, and strenuous physical activity are the causing factors.
Symptoms of heat stroke include:
- A quick, strong pulse
- Dizziness, fainting, and loss of consciousness
- Slurred speech, agitation, hallucinations, altered mental state
- Dry, red, hot skin.
- Temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
- Muscle twitching
- No sweating despite the heat
This is a life-threatening condition, and you should call 911 or your local emergency medical service right away if you or someone else has signs of heat stroke. While waiting for assistance, you should:
- Move to a cool place and rest. Remove excess clothing and drench skin with cool water; fan skin.
- Place ice bags on the armpits and groin areas. If alert and able to drink, then ingest cool fluids.
Again, heat stroke should always be treated in a hospital. Do not wait to see if the symptoms will go away on their own.
How to prevent heat illness
Though heat illnesses range in severity and danger, they are all quite preventable. Here are some steps you can take to reduce your risk of these illnesses:
- Try to limit time outdoors when the temperature and humidity are high, especially if you are at risk for heat illness.
- Take breaks to rest, ideally in a cooler area.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Drink regularly, even if you’re not thirsty. If you’re working or exercising in a hot environment, you should be having 16-32 ounces of water every hour.
- Keep your electrolyte level up. Choose an electrolyte drink or solution that’s low in sugar.
- Avoid alcohol or caffeinated beverages.
- Wear the appropriate clothing. Dress in loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when outdoors.
- Use and re-apply sunscreen with an SPF higher than 15. Sunburns can dehydrate your body and reduce its ability to cool down.
- Do not leave your child or an older adult alone in a hot car.