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Signs of Heat Exhaustion

DrSugar Answers: How Do I Know It's Heat Exhaustion?

DrSugar is in the house, and she's answering your health-related questions.

Dear Doc Sugar,
Today while I was about halfway through my run, I noticed that I was starting to get some chills and had goosebumps. I was probably pushing myself a little bit harder than usual, but it's not like I've never pushed myself to the limit before. Could this have been a sign of impending heat exhaustion? What can I do to prevent this from happening again?
Too Hot to Handle

I’m sure we’ve all experienced a workout that left us feeling like maybe we pushed it a little too hard. It’s hard to say if the symptoms you were experiencing were signs of impending heat exhaustion. Since you were able to ask this question, I’m going to assume that the symptoms went away and everything turned out OK. What I will discuss are the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion, the treatment, and also what heat stroke is. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke, so to learn more, keep reading.

Heat exhaustion is a serious condition that is a result of your body overheating. It’s one of three heat-related syndromes, with heat cramps being the mildest and heat stroke being the most severe. Heat cramps are muscle pains or spasms that usually affect people who sweat a lot during strenuous activity. This sweating depletes the body’s moisture and salt, and the low salt levels in the muscles cause painful cramps, usually in the arms, legs, or abdomen. If left untreated, heat cramps can lead to heat exhaustion.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion may come on suddenly or can develop after days of heat exposure; they include cool, moist skin with goosebumps, heavy sweating, faintness, dizziness, fatigue, weak and rapid pulse, low blood pressure upon standing, muscle cramps, nausea, and headache. The main cause of heat exhaustion is an impaired cooling mechanism. In hot weather, your body cools itself by sweating. However, when you exercise in very hot (and especially humid) weather, your body is less able to cool itself effectively. Other factors, such as dehydration, alcohol use, and wearing too many layers of clothes that don’t breathe, can aid in causing heat exhaustion. Certain factors can increase your sensitivity as well: obesity; certain medications, such as heart and blood pressure medications and allergy medications (antihistamines); and illicit drugs such as ecstasy, amphetamines, or cocaine.

Left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke. Heat stroke is defined as a life-threatening condition that occurs when your body temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. Heat stroke requires immediate medical attention to prevent permanent damage to your brain and vital organs that can result in death.

If you think you have heat cramps or heat exhaustion, get out of the heat as quickly as possible! Rest in a building that has air conditioning. If you can’t get inside, find a cool and shady place. Also, drink cool fluids such as water or sports drinks. Do not drink any beverages that contain alcohol or caffeine, which can make things worse. If possible, take a cool shower or bath or apply cool water to your skin. Take off any unnecessary or tight clothing. If you don't feel better within 30 minutes, you should immediately seek medical attention. Do not wait to seek medical attention if you have the following signs: skin that feels hot and dry but not sweaty, confusion or loss of consciousness, frequent vomiting, shortness of breath, or trouble breathing.

Prevention is key to avoiding heat exhaustion and heat stroke. When the temperature climbs, it is a good idea to avoid strenuous activity or exercising outdoors, but if you choose to be active in these conditions, wear loose-fitting, light-colored clothing, drink plenty of fluids, rest frequently in cool spots, and take extra precautions with certain medications. You can ask your pharmacist or doctor whether the medications you take make you more susceptible to heat exhaustion.

The take-home point is that exercise is very important to maintaining your overall health, but it is important to be cognizant of pushing it too hard, especially in hotter temperatures. Stay safe!

DrSugar's posts are for informational purposes only and should not be considered medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment recommendations. Click here for more details.

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