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How to tell between heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and how to treat them

According to the CDC, some of the most common heat-related illnesses are heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and they each present different symptoms.

ST. LOUIS — Summer in St. Louis can mean stretches of high-temperature days and it's important to know how the heat might be affecting you.

According to the CDC, some of the most common heat-related illnesses are heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, and they each present different symptoms.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. According to the CDC, typical symptoms include: 

  • body temperature of 103 degrees or higher
  • hot, red skin that can be either dry or damp
  • a fast, strong pulse
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • confusion
  • loss of consciousness


Heat stroke can be very dangerous, so if you see someone suffering from heat stroke call 911 and move them into a cooler place. 

The CDC said after calling 911, you can also help cool them down by applying ice packs or cool cloths to their body or get them into a cool bath. The Mayo Clinic said to focus the cooldown efforts on the neck armpits and groin.

If a person is suffering from heat stroke, the CDC says not to give them anything to drink, as it could end up getting into their lungs. Rehydration will likely require an IV from a medical professional.

Heat exhaustion

While the cause of heat exhaustion is the same as heat stroke, it can present different symptoms. According to the CDC, those symptoms include:

  • heavy sweating
  • cold, pale and clammy skin
  • a fast, weak pulse
  • muscle cramps
  • tiredness or weakness
  • dizziness
  • headache
  • upset stomach or vomiting
  • fainting


As is the case with other heat-related illnesses, the first step of treatment is to get out of the heat. You should also loosen your clothing and apply cool, wet cloths to cool yourself off.

Take sips of chilled water or a sports drink with electrolytes.

If you are vomiting, your symptoms get worse or your symptoms last more than an hour, get medical attention right away.

Heat cramps

If you have exercised in the summer heat before, you might be familiar with heat cramps. They are muscle pains or spasms that are often accompanied by heavy sweating.


If you are experiencing heat cramps, the CDC suggests stopping physical activity and moving to a cool place. Drink water or a sports drink and wait until the cramps go away before returning to your activity.

The CDC says if your cramps last more than an hour, you are on a low-sodium diet or you have heart problems, get medical help right away.

Who is at risk?

Anyone overexerting themselves in extreme heat or exposing themselves to extreme heat over long periods of time can suffer from heat-related illnesses, but there are other conditions that can make people more susceptible.

Older adults, the very young and people with mental illness and chronic diseases are at the highest risk.

According to the CDC, the following conditions can also increase your risk of heat-related illness:

  • obesity
  • fever
  • dehydration
  • prescription drug use
  • heart disease
  • poor circulation
  • sunburn
  • alcohol use

Prevention of heat illness

The CDC breaks down prevention into three groups: stay cool, stay hydrated and stay informed.

Stay Cool

The CDC suggests staying inside in an air-conditioned environment as much as possible during extreme heat. While fans may provide some comfort, when temperatures are in the 90s, they will not prevent heat-related illness by themselves.

RELATED: How to effectively cool your home during high temperatures, humidity

If you do have activities you want to do, plan them for the morning or evening, the coolest parts of the day. Get plenty of rest around active periods to give your body time to cool down and recover.

Do not leave children in cars. Cars can quickly heat up to dangerous temperatures, even with a window cracked open. While anyone left in a parked car is at risk, children are especially at risk of getting a heat stroke or dying.

Pace yourself if you need to work or exercise during extreme heat. If you haven't experienced extreme heat in a while, start slow and work your way up. If your heart is pounding or you can't catch your breath, stop all activity and get to a cool space.

Wear sunscreen. Sunburns can prevent your body from being able to cool itself. You can also protect your skin by wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

Wear light-weight, loose-fitting clothing and opt for lighter colors that won't attract as much heat.

Also, keep your pet's safety in mind. Pets can suffer from heat-related illnesses, too, so give them plenty of fresh water and limit time in the heat. Hot asphalt can also harm their paws. Test the surface temperature with your hand before letting your pet walk on it. Also, try to make sure there's some grass to walk on.

Stay hydrated

Drink plenty of water regardless of how active you are, and don't wait until you get thirsty to start drinking water. Avoid very sugary or alcoholic drinks, which can cause you to lose more body fluid.

Heavy sweating can drain your body of salt and minerals that you need. You can replace them with a sports drink high in minerals and electrolytes.

This goes for children, elderly relatives and pets as well.

Stay informed

Check local news to stay up-to-date on the weather forecast.

Know the signs of heat-related illness and how to treat them.

The CDC suggests using a buddy system to monitor possible symptoms. If you are working outdoors, make sure someone is there with you if you get overwhelmed by the heat.

Make sure to check on people that are at high risk of heat-related illness, including:

  • Infants and young children
  • People 65 years of age or older
  • People who are overweight
  • People who overexert during work or exercise
  • People who are physically ill, especially with heart disease or high blood pressure, or who take certain medications, such as for depression, insomnia, or poor circulation

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