OSEA Safety Blog

Identifying heat illnesses and preventing heatstrokes

Wednesday, August 17, 2022 Amy Wittmeyer

As summer continues and temperatures continue to rise, unfortunately so does the danger of heat-related illnesses. Often caused by periods of high activity in areas of direct sun and high temperatures, heat illnesses can intensify rapidly without treatment and become severe or even fatal. There are three main stages of heat illness:

1. Heat stress: mild physical discomfort and physiologic strain, often seen during summer sports or times of high activity in bright sun and high temperatures. Easily prevented or remedied by breaks in the shade, water, and healthy snacks.

2. Heat exhaustion: caused by dehydration and intense physical activity. Symptoms can include dizziness, thirst, nausea, heavy sweating, headache, and fatigue. Treatment includes moving to a cool and/or shady area, drinking electrolyte water or juice, eating salty snacks to aid in water absorption, and longer periods of rest. Gradually cool the ill person down to avoid shocking their system.

3. Heatstroke: a severe and life-threatening condition in which a person’s body reaches a temperature of 104°F or higher. Symptoms include confusion, headache, seizures, nausea and vomiting, fainting, rapid heartbeat, and skin hot to the touch but **no sweating.**

When a person reaches the heatstroke stage, treatment must be immediate and intense. Call 911 and begin to rapidly cool down the victim by removing them from sun and heat, pouring cold water on them or immersing them in cold water, and placing ice packs on their neck, armpits, and groin area (where large blood vessels are close to the skin).

Even if you’re not into outdoor activities in the summer, heatstroke can still be a very prevalent danger to everyone. One of the major causes of heatstroke in summer, aside from outdoor sports and activities, is hot cars. Children and pets left in cars for even just 15 minutes in temperatures as cool as 60°F can suffer from heat illness. Left in outside temperatures at or over 80°F, temperatures inside a car can skyrocket in minutes, and leaving a window cracked has proven to be ineffective. At 90°F, temperatures inside a car with a cracked window can reach up to 110°F in 15 minutes, or over 120° with no window cracked. Since 1998, over 900 children have died in hot cars. Children are more susceptible to heat illness, as their bodies can heat up 3-5x faster than adults.

Prevention of Heatstrokes

Heatstroke is a preventable illness. There are many steps you can take to reduce your risk of heatstroke, including:

  • Reduce excess clothing. Too much clothing in hot temperatures inhibits your body’s ability to sweat and cool itself down.
  • Wear lightweight and loose-fitting clothing when possible. Cotton is a heavy material and can hold moisture, which some people prefer but can become uncomfortable when outside for a long time. Others prefer synthetic moisture-wicking clothing to keep dry.
  • Don’t drink excessive amounts of alcohol. Drinking too much alcohol can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperature.
  • Drink plenty of fluids while outside and participating in active pursuits. Straight water is good, but when especially active, sugar and electrolytes become important to aid in cellular uptake of water. Drinking too much plain water without salty snacks or electrolyte additives can cause hyponatremia.
  • Hyponatremia is a serious condition caused by low sodium levels in the blood that often results from excessive water drinking. Without an appropriate amount of sodium in the blood, the water cannot be properly absorbed and is retained in the kidneys and bloodstream. Symptoms are confusingly similar to dehydration and can include muscle cramping, nausea, fatigue, and confusion. Prevention of both dehydration and hyponatremia can be achieved through consumption of salty snacks and sports drinks/electrolyte beverages as opposed to plain water.
  • Use sunscreen and wear hats and sunglasses while outdoors.
  • Never leave anyone in a parked car.


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