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Ask NurseGail.com: Is Heat Exhaustion A Real Thing?
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Ask NurseGail.com: Is Heat Exhaustion A Real Thing?

Know the signs and prevent something more serious.
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A reader asks, “Someone mentioned something about ‘heat exhaustion’ and I thought they were joking.  Is heat exhaustion a real thing?”  Keilynn Hopkins, a family nurse practitioner, explains the signs of heat exhaustion and why they shouldn’t be overlooked.


The summertime usually means longer hours outdoors, enjoying the fresh air, plus or minus a nice cold beer or mojito.  Lately the east coast has been experiencing temperatures in the 90’s with high levels of humidity.  In this kind of weather, the body naturally sweats, however when the humidity is high, the sweat won’t evaporate off the skin (which is what cools us down).  Staying outside in hot, humid weather can lead to heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion is real and it is often a warning that you’re not taking care of yourself in the sun.  It is a precursor to heat stroke and even death.  Yes, that sounds dramatic, but it’s true.  The latest CDC report indicates that there are an average of 620 U.S. deaths per year related to natural, weather-related heat.

Signs of heat exhaustion are:  feeling sluggish, excessive sweating, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, headaches, and feeling lightheaded. If you feel any of these symptoms, your body is sending you a message that it is unable to effectively regulate its core temperature.  Remember, unrelieved heat exhaustion can eventually progress to heat stroke, a complete shutdown of your body’s cooling system.

There are ways to prevent heat exhaustion if you aren’t able to cool off indoors.

  1. Stay hydrated.  Plan ahead by bringing a cooler with plenty of ice and water or electrolyte drinks.  Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol–they are diuretics that can dehydrate you. If you are working or exercising outside, drink two to four cups hourly.  Take frequent rest breaks and drink water often, even if you don’t feel thirsty.
  2. Stay cool.  Spend more time in shaded areas.  Wear light-colored breathable clothes. Your skin cannot cool down efficiently in damp clothes. Eat light and avoid hot or heavy food, as it will just add more heat to your body.
  3. Avoid the sun. Sunburns will affect your body’s ability to cool down. Spend your time outside in the early or later hours of the day when the sun isn’t as strong. The NIH (National Institutes of Health) recommends SPF of 30 or higher.  If you are fair-skinned, the higher the better.
  4. Taking medications? Certain over the counter medications are known to cause sun sensitivity: NSAIDS (ibuprofen, Advil, Motrin, Aleve), some antibiotics, and antihistamines (Claritin, Zyrtec, Benadryl).  A sun sensitive (or photosensitivity) reaction can look like a skin rash.  Not pretty.

Lastly, please be a good citizen.  Check on children and the elderly.  Look for signs of heat exhaustion and get them the care they need.


NurseGail.com note:  This post is for healthy adults.  Special populations need to take extra special precautions.

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