How to Recognize and Treat Heat-Related Illness

We spend more time outdoors during the warmer months, running, cycling, frolicking on the beach, and otherwise enjoying the sun. However, spending so much time in the heat increases the risk of developing heat exhaustion or heatstroke, which are both extremely dangerous and even fatal illnesses. While it is critical to avoid these conditions, if they do occur, it is critical to recognize the symptoms and take appropriate action.

How to Recognize and Treat Heat-Related Illness
How to Recognize and Treat Heat-Related Illness

What factors contribute to heat-related illness?

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are caused by a variety of factors. “Exercising in a warm or hot environment without adequate acclimatization can predispose one to heat exhaustion or heat injury,” explains Dr. Mike Clark, a preventive medicine physician at Cooper Clinic in Dallas. He notes that this is significantly worsened in high-humidity environments, and risks are also increased with high-intensity exercise and poor physical fitness. Clothing, equipment, and uniforms that prevent heat loss have an effect on your body’s ability to cool itself. Additionally, other risk factors, such as lack of sleep, dehydration, and fever, increase your risk of developing heat-related problems.

Heat cramps are a third condition to be aware of. These can also occur during exercise and may manifest as painful, involuntary muscle spasms, but according to Dr. Clark, these do not appear to be related to elevated ambient temperature. “They are not potentially life-threatening and should improve with hydration, stretching, and massage.”

Exhaustion due to heat

Heat exhaustion is common in warm climates and can be extremely serious and even fatal, Dr. Clark explains. He notes that exertion-related heat illness is a leading cause of death among young athletes, as well as among laborers, firefighters, and military personnel who are required to exert themselves in the heat.

Increased heart rate and breathing rate, mild to moderate dehydration, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, and weakness are all possible signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion. Additionally, dizziness and mild confusion may occur, as well as a brief loss of consciousness.

If you or someone you know is experiencing heat exhaustion, it is critical to take measures to cool the body down. Remove all equipment and excess clothing, and immerse the athlete in a tub of cold water, ideally between 35–60°F (2–16oC). If ice water immersion is not possible, Dr. Clark advises, “immediately initiate an alternate method of cooling.” Apply ice packs, for example, to areas of the body with large blood vessels, such as under the arms and near the groin. “Alternatively, you can spray water on the patient’s body and use fans to blow air over the moist skin, resulting in evaporative cooling. Water should be reapplied as needed and continuous fanning performed. ” Monitor vital signs and mental status to determine progress, and if there is no improvement, medical assistance may be required.


Heatstroke is a dangerous condition that occurs when the body temperature reaches 104°F (40oC) or higher. According to Dr. Clark, this condition can be accurately diagnosed using only a rectal thermometer. “This is a medical emergency, and immediate hospitalization is necessary,” he adds. Nevertheless, until assistance arrives, you should use the same cooling techniques as for heat exhaustion.

Heatstroke symptoms include slurred speech and delirium, as well as hallucinations and coma. Rapid breathing, a fast heart rate, and low blood pressure are all common, and moderate to severe dehydration, which vomiting or diarrhea exacerbates, should be anticipated. Dr. Clark notes that while dry skin is common with classic heatstroke, which occurs when the body is unable to cool itself properly (as is the case with infants or the elderly), excessive sweating is more common with exertional heatstroke.

Tips for avoiding heat-related illnesses while exercising

  • Hydrate. Take breaks and drink plenty of water, advises Jennifer Conroyd, founder of Fluid Running and a certified fitness trainer. “If you’re running outdoors, run one mile and then walk the next mile to drink water and cool down.”
  • Timing is critical. “Exercise in the early morning or late evening,” Conroyd suggests. “Before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m., the heat is less intense.”
  • It’s all about location, location, location. “If possible, exercise in a pool or in a shady area,” she adds.
  • Choose your outfit with care. Wear loose-fitting, lightweight clothing to aid in cooling and sweat evaporation. “Light-colored clothing will also reflect heat rather than absorb it.”
  • Proceed cautiously. “Ensure that you also acclimate to hot weather if you are used to exercising indoors,” Conroyd advises. “Begin by reducing your exercise intensity when working out in the heat. Then, as your body adjusts to the heat, gradually increase the intensity and duration of your workouts. “
  • Take note of your body. “If you begin to feel nauseous, lightheaded, or dizzy, immediately stop exercising,” Conroyd advises.

The short version

Heat illnesses are extremely dangerous and can be fatal. Take precautions if you exercise in warm environments: Consume plenty of water, dress loosely, take frequent breaks, and avoid the hottest part of the day. If you or someone you know suffers from heat exhaustion or heat stroke, cool your body immediately and do not hesitate to seek medical attention.

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