Health

Heat Exhaustion Signs to Know Because, Wow, It’s Freaking Hot Outside

Listen, I like summer as much as the next girl, but there is such a thing as being too hot. Not only does it suck as a feeling, but your chances of winding up with heat exhaustion can rise as the temperature creeps higher, too. So, how can you tell the difference between simply craving the sweet, sweet embrace of an air-conditioned room and getting into potentially dangerous territory with heat exhaustion? Here’s what to know to stay safe.

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is a temperature-related illness that happens when your body’s usual cooling mechanisms just aren’t cutting it, according to the Mayo Clinic. As a result, you become way too hot, which can eventually be harmful if you don’t take steps to cool down quickly.

In order to keep your core temperature around 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, your body has a few different mechanisms to cool you down or heat you up when necessary, the Mayo Clinic explains. In extreme heat, especially for long periods of time or while exerting yourself, your body can wind up taking in more heat than it’s able to expel through these mechanisms.

The most noticeable way your body responds to heat and exertion is sweating, Lawrence Phillips, M.D., a cardiologist at NYU Langone Health, tells SELF. Sweat moistens the surface of your body and cools you down as it evaporates, which helps to regulate your temperature, according to the Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy. Pretty freaking handy. But if your body is churning out a ton of sweat in an attempt to cool you down, you can become dehydrated, meaning you lose so much fluid your body can’t function normally.

Another way your body dissipates excess heat is by sending blood out to your arms and legs where blood vessels are closer to the skin, which allows your blood to cool faster than it would in your body’s core, Michael Millin, M.D., associate professor of Emergency Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, tells SELF. The problem is that this means there’s less blood returning to and pumping out of your heart, Dr. Millin explains.

Between the dehydration and blood flow issues, you might start to experience symptoms of heat-related illnesses. You might brush off some of these reactions as normal responses to a hot day, but a lot of them definitely don’t happen every time you’re feeling a little warmer than usual.

A few symptoms set heat exhaustion apart from just feeling really hot.

The thing about heat exhaustion is that its symptoms don’t just strike out of nowhere. Heat exhaustion actually exists on a spectrum of heat-related illnesses, with heat cramps preceding it. If you treat heat cramps in time, you can avoid getting heat exhaustion entirely, so it’s worth going over those symptoms first:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Thirst

If you get heat exhaustion, your body basically piles onto the symptoms of heat cramps. In addition to those, you might experience:

  • Cool, moist skin with goosebumps even though it’s hot out
  • Feeling faint
  • Dizziness
  • Pale skin
  • A fast, weak pulse
  • Feeling lightheaded when you stand up
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Headache

If you don’t treat heat exhaustion in time, you might wind up with these additional symptoms, which can signal heatstroke:

  • Flushed skin that can either feel dry or moist
  • Confusion, trouble speaking, or other signs of a scrambled mental state
  • A temperature over 104 degrees Fahrenheit

Heatstroke can be life-threatening, so, clearly, it’s best to avoid even setting down a path of heat-related illnesses. Instead of splitting hairs over the question, “Am I just really hot or is something else going on?” focus on tending to your symptoms. That brings us to our next point.

What to do if you think you have heat exhaustion (or are just way too hot)

The good news is that you can often take care of heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or just being super hot by getting someplace cooler and rehydrating.

You might be tempted to chug a ton of water as soon as you can, but remember that rehydrating also means replenishing the electrolytes you lose while sweating, says Dr. Millin. These minerals—primarily sodium, potassium, calcium, chlorine, magnesium, and phosphates—help to make sure your nerves, muscles, heart, and brain all work the way they should, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Because the primary electrolyte you lose through sweat is sodium, eating a salty snack as you drink water can help make up for what you’ve lost, as SELF previously reported.

Of course, there’s also the option of downing a sports drink. Drinking these on a regular basis might not be ideal for you because of how sugary they are (though that really depends on your nutritional habits at large), but if it’s what you have available when you feel like you’re overheating, a sports drink is more than fine, says Dr. Phillips.

You can also cool off by putting water on your skin. It’s best to do this somewhere out of the sun, like by going inside and wetting your skin, then fanning it off. This mimics the cooling reaction of sweating, says Dr. Millin. If you’re really hot and unable to go someplace cooler, try to shield yourself without adding to the heat, like by going under a beach umbrella and draping yourself with a wet towel.

If you’re not feeling better after an hour or your symptoms are getting worse, the Mayo Clinic recommends seeking immediate medical attention. You should do the same if you’re unable to hydrate due to vomiting, really feel like you’re going to pass out, or do actually lose consciousness, Dr. Millin says.

How to avoid heat exhaustion

You probably get by now that good hydration is a key preemptive strike against heat exhaustion (seriously, if you’re going to be in the heat, drink plenty of water!), but there’s other stuff you can do, too:

Watch your alcohol intake.
As someone who just spent a weekend drinking margaritas on the beach, I know this isn’t the most enticing suggestion. But according to Dr. Phillips, alcohol and heat don’t mix. Alcohol can be dehydrating, which we already know can contribute to heat-related illnesses. It might also make you less aware of the symptoms of something like heat exhaustion. Because you know what else makes you dizzy, nauseated, flushed, and tired? Oh, right. Drinking.

I’m not saying you can’t drink in the heat, but if you’re going to, make sure you’re taking the right precautions, like keeping your water-to-alcohol ratio even, eating enough, and maybe going for drinks that are lower in alcohol, like beer and spiked seltzer over mixed cocktails.

Plan ahead.
People who aren’t used to extreme heat are a lot more likely to run into trouble with heat-related illness, says Dr. Millin. Like, if you’re on vacation somewhere a lot hotter than home and jump right into an adventurous hike. Give yourself time to acclimate.

Another instance where you can plan ahead: If you know you’re going to spend a lot of time exerting yourself outside this summer. If so, you might want to consider getting some oral rehydration powder or tablets in case of emergency, says Dr. Millin. You can mix them into water to get the electrolytes you need, and some people might find them easier to keep handy or prefer them to a salty snack or sugary drink.

Protect against sunburn.
If you get a sunburn, you’re more at risk of developing heat exhaustion. Sunburn itself is a form of heat illness and affects your body’s ability to cool down. The Mayo Clinic suggests wearing a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses and using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 when outdoors. Don’t forget to reapply as directed.

Make a plan for extra bad days.
If a heat wave is on the horizon and you don’t live somewhere with air conditioning, scout out where you might be able to spend free time. Libraries and malls are great.

Talk to your doctor if you take certain medications.
According to the Mayo Clinic, certain medications can screw with your body’s ability to stay hydrated, like diuretics, antihistamines, and antidepressants. If you’re on medication that you think might be affecting your odds of staying cool in the heat, talk to your doctor for some tips on how to deal.

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