Heat Stroke: Know the Signs

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Trust me, I get it – the sun is irresistible. Now that warm summer days are back, I love seeing people out in the sun spending time with their family and friends. It makes me happy from a medical standpoint, too, since more sun also means more vitamin D, which most of us desperately need after a long winter inside. But the summer sun and heat isn’t all fun and games. You’ve heard me talk countless times about using a broad spectrum sunscreen to protect you against cancer-causing UVA and UVB rays when you’re outside. But there are other things to be careful about aside from skin cancer – the heat can be just as dangerous as the sun.

As the summer days get hotter and hotter, it’s crucial that everyone knows how much heat is too much. Heat stroke happens when your body’s normal temperature regulation fails in response to a very hot environment. Here’s how it happens: As sweat dries or evaporates off of your skin, it carries with it some of the heat your body makes. This allows you to stay around a perfect 98.6°F needed for your body to work properly. However, on hot, humid days, sweat doesn’t evaporate as easily from your body since there’s already a lot of moisture in the air. That means the heat sweat would normally carry away gets stuck on your skin, making it tough for you to cool down.

Even on a dry day, you can also find yourself in trouble. Sweat evaporates faster in dry heat so you’ll lose water faster than normal, which means you have to stay well-hydrated to keep up. If you don’t, your body won’t have enough water to make sweat, which means you can get rid of the heat you need to.

So how can you know if you’re getting close to the point of danger? Well, there are a couple of stages the body goes through that can give you early warning signs. Being able to recognize these so that you can cool down in time can keep you from getting into trouble.

Heat cramps
These muscle cramps can be an early sign of overheating. You may also feel tired and thirsty. If you experience these signs, take a break to cool down. An electrolyte-replenishing drink can help your body recover.

Heat exhaustion
If you miss these signs and stay in the heat, you might move in to heat exhaustion. You’ll have all the early signs with other, more serious ones. You may start to feel dizzy or faint, nauseous, have a headache, your skin may feel strangely cool, and you may have goose bumps. If you notice these signs, get into the shade, rest, and get something to drink, preferably with electrolytes. If these symptoms don’t go away in an hour, you should see a doctor.

Heat stroke
The final and most dangerous stage. Your body is running out of water and can’t control its temperature anymore. You’ll likely stop sweating altogether and, along with the previous symptoms, you may start vomiting, have red, flushed skin, feel your heart racing, and breathe rapidly. You may be confused and eventually pass out. This is an emergency. If this is happening to you or someone you’re with, get them into the shade and call 911. Do anything you can to cool them down, including putting them in a cool bath, wrapping them in a cool cloth and giving them cool fluids (but no alcohol) to drink.

If you pay close attention to the signs your body is sending you, you probably won’t get to the final stage, but here are some simple ways to make sure this doesn’t happen to you.

Stay hydrated and keep some water with you
If you’re having trouble keeping up with the water you need every day, check out our hydration hacks. They’ll ensure you get the water you need and keep you from drying out when the weather is particularly hot.

Don’t get sunburned
Sunburned skin doesn’t sweat or release heat as well as normal skin. Wear light-colored, lightweight clothing that protects you from the sun and put sunscreen on any exposed areas. If you’re unsure about what to look for in a sunscreen, this can help you figure out what the label means.

Avoid the worst of it
Take it easy when it’s hottest outside – generally between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you’re going to exercise, try and do it in the morning or evening. Here are more tips on ways to stay fit in hot weather. Also look out for other places that can be extra hot, like a car after it’s been parked in the sun.