Subtle Signs You're Experiencing Heat Exhaustion

Being outside in the heat and humidity can get dangerous. Here are the warning signs that you're at risk and how to protect your body.
As dangerously hot and humid days become more common, it's important to protect yourself against heat exhaustion.
lechatnoir via Getty Images
As dangerously hot and humid days become more common, it's important to protect yourself against heat exhaustion.

Between a deadly heat wave in Europe, record-breaking temperatures in the United Kingdom and heat advisories throughout the United States, it’s been a dangerously hot summer throughout much of the world.

High temperatures can be unsafe for a number of reasons: Intense heat can lead to dehydration, sunburn, heat rash and serious issues such as heat exhaustion.

In short, heat exhaustion is your body telling you you’re overheating, said Dr. Sindhu Aderson, medical director of Northwestern Medicine Immediate Care in Illinois. “Heat exhaustion is essentially when your body’s temperature [reaches] elevated rates,” she said. And this is caused by the high temperature of the air around you.

But how do you know if you or a loved one is suffering from heat exhaustion? Here, experts share what to look out for the next time you’re out on a hot day.

You’re at risk for heat exhaustion in hot and humid climates.

Behind heatstroke, “heat exhaustion is the second most dangerous heat-related illness that occurs when people are exposed to hot environments,” said Dr. Lancer Scott, a professor in the department of emergency medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina.

You’re at high risk of heat exhaustion on days when the heat index (which is what the air temperature feels like when combined with humidity) is above 100, Scott added, noting that this is a more common occurrence in Southern states.

Before going outside on a hot day, be sure to check the heat index in your area on the National Weather Service’s website.

You’re also at higher risk if you’re taking part in strenuous outdoor activities.

Aderson added that heat exhaustion is particularly common among people who are doing strenuous outdoor activities on a hot day— things like running a race or taking a workout class.

You want to limit your time exercising or working in the heat,” she said. “Take frequent breaks.”

If you are someone who has to work outdoors, it may not be possible to just tell your boss “No, I’m not working outside today.” If that’s the case, remember that you do have rights when it comes to working in dangerously hot conditions.

You can team up with co-workers to demand things like more breaks or access to shade, or you can find out your rights under the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. There are some built-in protections available to you: OSHA will issue citations for safety violations and advocate for people if they become sick from working in the heat.

Heavy sweating could be a sign of heat exhaustion.
Corey Jenkins via Getty Images
Heavy sweating could be a sign of heat exhaustion.

Common heat exhaustion signs are the symptoms you’d associate with being too hot.

According to Scott, heavy sweating, an increased heart rate and clammy (but cool) skin are all common signs of heat exhaustion.

If you find that it’s hard to decipher whether you’re experiencing heat exhaustion or are just hot, err on the side of caution. Take a break from the sun and keep an eye out for other warning signs.

Nausea is a sign that you could be suffering from heat exhaustion, too.

If you’re outside and you feel sick to your stomach, that may be a sign of heat exhaustion, Scott said. Additionally, vomiting is a definite red flag.

Monitor yourself for muscle cramps and dizziness, too.

If you feel your muscles cramping up, particularly in your calves or arms, or notice that you’re dizzy, you should take a break from the sun, Aderson noted. These are both signs that you could be suffering from heat exhaustion.

Protect yourself by drinking enough water.

According to Scott, “most cases of heat exhaustion are due to not drinking enough water and environmental factors such as high humidity.”

He stressed that you should drink water before heading out for your day, especially if know you are going to be outside (and, hey, it’s also good to drink water even if you’re planning on staying indoors). Scott also said that folks should bring water with them when they leave the house and continuously drink water when they’re outside. “Once you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated,” Scott explained.

The amount of water needed each day is different from person to person. Amy Shapiro, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and founder of Real Nutrition NYC, previously told HuffPost that you should drink “half of your body weight in ounces of water.” So, according to this formula, someone who weighs 200 pounds needs to drink 100 ounces of water each day. And you should drink even more water on hot, humid days.

Finding shade is a good way to protect yourself from heat exhaustion.
Stephen Lux via Getty Images
Finding shade is a good way to protect yourself from heat exhaustion.

Staying in the shade is also key.

Whether you find a tree for some solace from the sun or set up an umbrella, shade is a good way to protect yourself from heat exhaustion, Scott said. It also can help better protect you against UV rays, which can cause sun damage to your skin.

Additionally, wearing sunscreen is an important way to fend off heat exhaustion.

Speaking of UV rays, don’t forget your sunblock. If it’s a hot, sunny day, you’ll want to be lathered up with sunscreen anyway, but Aderson noted that it has an extra benefit of helping to prevent heat exhaustion.

“You want to be pretty aggressive with wearing sunscreen,” she said. “Having a sunburn can affect your body’s ability to really cool itself down.”

And if your body can’t cool itself down, you’ll have a harder time fending off heat exhaustion the next time you’re outside on a hot day.

Be extra cautious if you’re drinking alcohol outdoors.

“I urge folks to be careful with alcohol on hot days,” Scott said. “Alcohol increases your free water losses.” In other words, when you drink alcohol, you pee a lot and can become dehydrated as you drink.

If you notice signs of heat exhaustion, make cooling off a priority.

“Generally, heat exhaustion is treatable at home,” Aderson said.

It can be treated by cooling yourself off, which can mean taking off extra layers of clothing, finding a fan to sit near or seeking out air conditioning. If you feel like you’re experiencing heat exhaustion, you should get out of the sun and drink lots of fluids, she stressed.

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