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Heat stroke vs. Heat exhaustion: what’s the difference and how do you stay safe?


Summer means rising temperatures that can put you at risk for heat-related diseases.

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As temperatures rise across the country, there is (yet another) very real health risk that more Americans will be facing in the coming weeks and months: heat stroke or heat exhaustion.

Heat stroke and heat exhaustion are very serious diseases that can lead to death. Whether you are indoors without air conditioning or outside to work or play, it is important to understand the signs and symptoms of heat related illnesses and what to do if it happens to you or someone you are with are.

Dr. Eric Adkins, an emergency doctor at Wexner Medical Center, Ohio, explains below the difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion, the signs and symptoms to look for, and what you can do to prevent heat-related illnesses this summer.

Heat stroke against heat exhaustion

According to Mayo Clinic, heat-related diseases can occur under various conditions. Heat stroke can occur when someone is exposed to hot or hot and humid conditions long enough to bring a person’s body temperature up to a dangerous level. All weather conditions with a heat index of 91 degrees or higher are considered a risk factor for heat-related diseases. Note that moisture only increases the intensity.

Heat stroke can also be triggered during physical activity or work in hot conditions. Factors such as dehydration, alcohol consumption and wearing many layers of clothing can make the disease appear faster or more likely to occur.

The symptoms of heat exhaustion usually appear before a heat stroke, but heat exhaustion can lead to a stroke if it is not treated early enough. “The main difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion affects the nervous system during heat stroke. With heat stroke, patients develop confusion and changes in consciousness. Other examples could be seizures, severe headaches, or irritability,” says Dr. Adkins.

Warning signs of heat stroke according to the CDC are:

  • High body temperature (103 or higher)
  • Hot, red, dry or damp skin
  • Fast, strong pulse
  • a headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • confusion
  • Fainting or loss of consciousness

If you think you or someone near you is suffering from heat stroke, you should call 911 immediately. While waiting for medical treatment, it is important that you try to help the person cool down by moving them to a cooler area or a cooler area, or lowering their body temperature with a cool bath or towels. The CDC says it is important that you do not give anything to someone who may experience heat stroke to drink. This may not sound intuitive, but you should wait until the medical helpers arrive first.

If you are unsure whether you or someone else has a heat stroke, it is best not to take any risks. “If in doubt, I recommend getting a check-up to make sure the symptoms aren’t caused by heat or another possible emergency,” says Dr. Adkins.

Warning signs of heat exhaustion according to the CDC:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Cold, pale, damp skin
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • dizziness
  • a headache
  • Fainting or fainting

If someone suffers from heat exhaustion, they should immediately try to cool down and, if necessary, apply cold towels or take a cool bath. You can drink small sips of water, but if the person vomits, they should call 911 or go to the hospital. You should also see a doctor if symptoms worsen or last longer than an hour.


Children and the elderly are at risk of heat-related illnesses. It is therefore important that they do not overheat and stay hydrated.

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How to prevent heat stroke or heat exhaustion

Heat-related illnesses are completely preventable, especially if you can avoid going outside for long periods during the heat waves. “If you have to go outside, try earlier or later in the day when the heat may be less intense. Drink plenty of water if you don’t have water intake problems like chronic heart failure due to an illness,” says Dr. Adkins.

For those who do not have air conditioning at home or do not have access to air conditioning locations, the situation is more difficult. “If you don’t have access to air-conditioned locations, try using fans to circulate air. You can use cool towels to help the body escape heat. Water-soaked towels can help the body eliminate heat and work even better in combination with fans, “says Dr. Adkins.

Who is most at risk?

Knowing who is most susceptible to heat stroke can help you identify him or her quickly and get help for someone who is in trouble. Anyone can experience a heat stroke when exposed to high temperatures, even indoors and without air conditioning. “Older and young children who may not be able to tell that they are overheated or unable to communicate with someone they feel hot are at higher risk,” says Dr. Adkins.

For this reason, it is important to watch children closely when they are playing outside in the heat or when they are indoors where there is no access to air conditioning or fans. Don’t forget that many older people are inside now and not all have air conditioning.

“I usually recommend people to look for older neighbors without air conditioning in hot weather. It is still possible to stay socially distant and use masks to look for relatives and neighbors,” says Dr. Adkins.

In addition to children and the elderly, Dr. Adkin’s other factors increase the risk of heat related illnesses, including alcohol and caffeine consumption. “Some medications can also make patients more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, such as beta blockers for chronic heart failure or blood pressure monitoring,” says Dr. Adkins.

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a doctor or other qualified healthcare provider if you have any questions about an illness or health goals.

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