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Sun sick—all about heat illness

Many of us look forward to spending time outdoors in the summer. The seemingly endless activities the season offers can make us feel healthy and happy. However, too much of a good thing and too little attention to our bodies’ signals can result in serious consequences.

Sometimes, during prolonged exposure to extreme heat, the body has trouble cooling itself. Under these circumstances the body temperature rises, which may result in heat illness. The progression builds from heat cramps to heat exhaustion to heat stroke, the most severe form. It is important to catch symptoms early so they do not intensify your condition. Heat illnesses can result in hospitalization and even death.

Heat cramps[1]

Symptoms: Pain or spasms, typically in the abdominal region, arms or legs

What to do: Stop what you are doing and seek shelter in a cool place. Replenish your fluids and rest for a few hours. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests seeking medical attention for cramps that do not disappear within an hour. While not life-threatening, heat cramps should be taken seriously as they can lead to heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion[2]

Symptoms: Heavy sweating; pale, cool and/or clammy skin; nausea or vomiting; headache; weakness; fainting or dizziness; fatigue; rapid pulse; quick, shallow breathing; body temperature as high as 104 degrees F

What to do: Heat exhaustion may not be as severe as heat stroke, but it can lead to heat stroke, which is very serious. Stop activity immediately if you have heat exhaustion symptoms. Rest in a cool place—ideally with air conditioning—and consume cool beverages. You may also take a cool bath or shower or wrap yourself in cool, wet cloth. The CDC suggests seeking medical attention for symptoms that worsen or last more than one hour.

Heat stroke[3]

Symptoms: A temperature above 104 degrees F; extreme confusion; irritability; loss of sweating; seizures; loss of consciousness; strange and irrational behavior; rapid, shallow breathing; rapid, weak pulse

What do to: Heat stroke is a very serious and potentially life-threatening condition. It can result in brain damage, organ failure or death. 9-1-1 should be called for these symptoms. While waiting for medical attention, the heat stroke victim should be kept rested and supervised. The CDC recommends using whatever methods using whatever means possible to cool him or her, such as a shower, garden hose, sponge bath, a wet sheet or fan. Conscious victims may be given sips of water.

Know your risk

While some populations may be more at risk for heat emergencies than others—people who are older, overweight or ill, as well as babies and young children—everyone can fall victim.

The National Institutes of Health lists the following as common causes of heat emergencies[4]:

  • Alcohol use
  • Dehydration
  • Heart disease
  • High temperatures or humidity
  • Medications such as beta blockers, diuretics, neuroleptics, phenothiazines, and anticholingerics
  • Prolonged or excessive exercise
  • Sweat gland problems
  • Wearing too much clothing

Practice smart exposure

By taking some precautionary measures, you can lessen your risk for heat illness[5],[6].

  • Pay attention to your body’s signals and react accordingly
  • Seek shade whenever possible
  • Avoid strenuous work or exercise during hot, humid days, especially during mid-day
  • If you are active on hot, humid days, take time to rest
  • Drink enough liquids and consume extra with activity—the CDC suggests drinking two to four 16–32 oz glasses of cool fluids per hour during heavy exercise in a hot environment
  • Avoid alcoholic or caffeinated beverages, which cause dehydration
  • Check in on the elderly and others at risk for heat illness on excessively hot days; if you are older or at risk for heat illness, ask someone to check in on you
  • Do not leave pets or children in hot cars, even if the windows are down
  • Wear light, loose-fitting clothing and sunscreen—and be sure to reapply
  • Promptly seek medical attention if you display any of the symptoms

Air conditioning is the number one protective factor against heat-related illness and death, according to the CDC.[7]

During times of extreme heat, the organization suggests spending time in locations with access to air conditioning such as shopping malls, public libraries, and public health–sponsored heat-relief shelters.

When in doubt, take time out! Don’t work through feeling “a little lightheaded.” Things can go seriously wrong in a short amount of time. Stay hydrated, cool and safe, so you don’t have to miss a day in the sun.

For more information about heat illnesses and emergencies, visit the CDC’s page about extreme heat and your health or the Red Cross’ heat emergency PDF.


Originally posted June 13, 2012. Last reviewed June 24, 2016.

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Emergency Preparedness and Response: Extreme Heat Prevention Guide.” Last updated Sept. 22, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] National Institutes of Health. U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Heat Emergencies.” Last updated Jan. 13, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Emergency Preparedness and Response: Extreme Heat Prevention Guide.” Last updated Sept. 22, 2015.

[7] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Emergency Preparedness and Response: Extreme Heat.” Last updated July 27, 2015.

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