It’s that time a year again here in Kansas – the temperatures are beginning to top 100 degrees, and heat indexes above 110 F. That also means it’s time for people to be taking precautions for heat related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
While it’s more common to hear about heat exhaustion or heat stroke, there’s also Heat Cramps. Heat cramps occur when the body is experiencing dehydration and depletion of electrolytes from intense sweating. As the name implies, heat cramps involves potentially painful muscle cramps in the arms, legs, shoulders, and abdominal muscles. While sometimes the onset is fairly immediate, it can also be delayed for a number of hours and sometimes occurs while lying in bed at night. They can also involve involuntary muscle spasms.
Generally speaking, heat cramps are not a life threatening problem, though they can be an indicator that it’s time to get out of the heat and re-hydrate, preferably with non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverages containing electrolytes or even a salted beverage. Do not use salt tablets unless they are being taken with cold water. However, those with medical conditions may need to act quickly, or depending on the condition, may need to seek medical help. Although heat cramps aren’t dangerous, they are definitely an indicator to take action soon to avoid heat exhaustion or worse.
Dehydration or prolonged exposure to the heat can lead to the inability for the body to regulate its temperature properly. The core body temperature begins to rise and struggles to maintain a healthy temperature. The symptoms of heat exhaustion are more severe than heat cramps: dizziness, blurred vision, lightheadedness, profuse sweating, pale skin, fatigue, cramps, headache, nausea, vomiting, and / or rapid heartbeat.
Heat exhaustion is serious, because it can very quickly lead to heat stroke. Immediate actions should be taken if experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion:
- Get out of the heat and rest where it’s cooler
- Replace lost fluids with either a sports drink or 1-2 quarts of water with 2 teaspoons of salt
- Loosen or remove clothing
- Use a cool wet cloth to help cool the skin
If you do take action, and the symptoms haven’t subsided within 15 minutes, seek immediate medical treatment.
Even after you’ve recovered from heat exhaustion, you’ll still need to be careful for a week or two, because it becomes very easy to have another episode of heat exhaustion or worse.
Heat stroke is an emergency situation – call 911 immediately. As the body temperature continues to rise, the victim can lose consciousness, and the heat can lead to brain damage along with damage to other organs. Left untreated by a medical professional, heat stroke can lead to coma and death. Every year in the United States there are between 400 to 700 deaths from heat stroke.
Some of the warning signs of heat stroke are the same as heat exhaustion: dizziness, blurred vision, lightheadedness, fatigue, cramps, headache, nausea, vomiting, and / or rapid heartbeat. Other warning signs of heat stroke include: lack of sweating (despite the heat), red skin that’s hot and dry to the touch, confusion, unconsciousness, and seizures. If you see any combination of these symptoms, do not wait: call 911.
Heat stroke cannot be treated by the average person, but you can help save a life by improving the situation while waiting for medical personnel:
- Move the person out of the heat
- Apply cool water to the skin while fanning air across the body (to help facilitate evaporation, since the body is no longer sweating on its own)
- If available, apply ice packs to the armpits, groin, neck, and back.
For all three mentioned heat related illnesses, the best suggestion is prevention. Avoid getting to the point of heat cramps, exhaustion, or stroke by:
Watch the weather. Always be aware if it’s going to be a hot day out – in Kansas, it can be 60 degrees one day, and 100 the next easily, or sometimes on in the same day.
Plan for it. If you’re going to be outside for extended periods of time, make sure that shade is available, or even better, that air conditioning is available if necessary.
Dress for it. Loose fitting, light colored garments that breath are your best choice for attire in high temperatures.
Avoid it. If you have a medical condition such as congestive heart failure, avoid the heat entirely. Additionally, if you’re on medication, talk to the medical professional who prescribed it – certain medications can make you more susceptible to heat related illnesses.
Hydrate. Make sure to have cool water available at all times, and use it. While it’s easy to think you don’t need a drink because you’ve been in the pool all day. Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages when in the heat, and the use of sports drinks can be handy to keep the electrolyte levels within a healthy range.
Socialize. In both heat exhaustion and heat stroke stages, it is possible to lose consciousness – a potentially fatal situation, since you’ll be unable to move yourself to cooler areas. If you’re going to be outside for an extended period of time, always bring friends.
For more information about heat related illness, you can visit Merck Manual’s page on Heat Related Disorders.
This article is for educational purposes only, and should not be considered medical advice. Healthcare is an individualized process, and reading an article online should not be your source for healthcare advice - instead, it's intended to help you better understand the process or healthcare, inform about a specific disease, or present the potential for lifestyle changes that may occur with a disease or disorder. Do no rely on online articles for healthcare - instead, consult your healthcare provider if you feel you may be suffering from symptoms presented in this article, or other symptoms not listed here.
Heat Index Map for Kansas from the NOAA