Heat exhaustion: What is it and how can it be treated or prevented?

Heat exhaustion comes from overheating and high temperatures and isn't usually serious - but it can become something life threatening if measures aren't taken to cool down.

 A sign warns of extreme heat in Death Valley, California, US, July 11, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/BRIDGET BENNETT/FILE PHOTO)
A sign warns of extreme heat in Death Valley, California, US, July 11, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/BRIDGET BENNETT/FILE PHOTO)

Heat exhaustion has become a growing concern in recent weeks.

This condition, derived from overheating and high temperatures, isn't usually serious - but it can become something life threatening if measures aren't taken to cool down.

Though discussions around it often come up around summer, it is especially notable now, following the severe heatwaves that struck the UK and other parts of the world.

But what is heat exhaustion? What are heat exhaustion symptoms and what are its long-term effects?

Here is what you need to know about heat exhaustion.

The sun rises over the Dead Sea, Israel (credit: Wikimedia Commons)The sun rises over the Dead Sea, Israel (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Heat exhaustion symptoms: What are the 4 main symptoms of heat exhaustion?

Simply put, heat exhaustion is a result of the body overheating

It can be caused by a number of things, such as high temperatures, but this is especially common when combined with both high humidity and undertaking physical activity.

To elaborate this further, it results not just from the heat but from the body's failure to cool itself down. Normally, the body does this through sweating, but some things like strenuous exercise or humidity can make this difficult.

This can also further be caused by overdressing, dehydration and alcohol use, as can certain medications like beta blockers, diuretics, allergy medication, antipsychotics and tranquilizers, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Notably, among children, there tends to be one major cause of heat exhaustion that can become life threatening, and that would be being left alone in a parked car. In fact, babies dying in parked cars is an increasingly growing concern in its own right.

Now, heat exhaustion by itself isn't dangerous and it can be prevented. However, there are some symptoms to look out for.

According to the UK National Health Services (NHS), the symptoms to look out for include extreme thirst, fast pulse or breathing, cramps in the limbs ands stomach, pale and clammy skin, excessive sweating, dizziness and confusion, headaches, appetite loss, feeling sick and a temperature of 38 degrees Celsius or more.

How long does heat exhaustion last? How do you treat or relieve it?

The most important step in treating heat exhaustion is to cool them down.

There are several ways this can be done but the NHS recommends the following four-step plan.

  1. First, the person suffering from heat exhaustion should move to a cool place.
  2. Second, they should lie down with their feet slightly raised.
  3. Third, they should drink a lot of water, though sports drinks or rehydration drinks can work too.
  4. Fourth, they need to cool down their skin. This can be done by just spraying them with some cool water and with the use of a fan, or placing ice packs around the neck or armpits.

Overall, this should take just 30 minutes, but someone should stay with them until they feel better.

Heat exhaustion vs heatstroke

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke are not the same thing, but they are related.

The two of them are both heat-related conditions, along with heat cramps. However, heatstroke is by far the most severe and can become life-threatening if not treated.

If someone suffering heat exhaustion isn't feeling better after half an hour or an hour of drinking water while resting in a cool area, that's a sign that this affliction could get worse.

Other symptoms include a rising temperature, feeling confused and not sweating despite feeling hot. 

If someone has a seizure, shortness of breath or becomes non-responsive or loses consciousness, then the situation has escalated into an emergency and an ambulance should be called.

How to prevent heat exhaustion

There are a few steps that can be taken to prevent heat exhaustion.

  • Avoid the sun between the hottest hours of the day. 
  • Avoid excess alcohol, extreme exercise and severe physical activity in the sun.
  • Take cold baths or showers. Even sprinkle water on skin and clothing.
  • Wear light-colored loose clothing.
  • Drink a lot of cold drinks and stay hydrated.

Some people, like children and elderly and those with preexisting conditions, are at higher risk so they should be especially careful.