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It's getting hot in here: The dangers of dehydration and heat exhaustion

Summer is ripe with possibilities for fun. It's almost impossible to not take every chance you can to venture outdoors and enjoy the warm weather. While this means that you'll be getting plenty of exercise as you bike, swim and play sports, it also means that you will be at a much greater risk for heat-related illnesses.

Two of the most common heat-related illnesses are dehydration and heat exhaustion. Luckily, you can avoid these dangerous conditions by taking certain precautions and knowing the signs. By identifying the symptoms early on, you can avoid heat stroke, a life-threatening condition caused by heat exhaustion. Let's dive into the details about these summertime dangers to learn how to prevent them.

What is dehydration?

Dehydration is a condition that occurs when you lose or use more fluid than you take in. This creates a hydration imbalance in your body. Without replacing the proper amount of fluids, namely water, your body won't have what it needs to carry out its normal functions.

While dehydration can happen to anyone, those most at risk are young children and older adults. Kids have vulnerable immune systems, so they can experience the symptoms of dehydration more severely.

Dehydration occurs in older adults because they naturally have a lower volume of water in their bodies. They are also more likely to take medications or have other conditions that increase the risk of dehydration.

Anyone of any age is at risk of dehydration if they don't drink enough water during hot weather, especially while exercising. As your body sweats to compensate for the heat and cool your systems, it needs a continuous supply of water to keep functioning.

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is a heat-related illness caused by hot temperatures, heat cramps and dehydration. There are two types of heat exhaustion: water depletion and salt depletion. Heat exhaustion is not something that should be taken lightly, as it can progress to heat stroke.

Anyone can experience heat exhaustion, however young children and adults over age 65 are more vulnerable because they adjust to heat more slowly. Additionally, just like dehydration, older adults are more likely to take medications or have other conditions that increase the risk of dehydration.

Watch for signs and symptoms

By knowing the signs of dehydration or heat exhaustion, you may be able to catch the symptoms early to prevent them from worsening.

While it is easy to think thirst is an obvious indicator of dehydration, many people don't feel thirsty until they're already severely dehydrated. Here are the most common symptoms of dehydration:

  • Less frequent urination
  • Dizziness
  • Dark-colored urine
  • Extreme thirst
  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Sunken eyes, cheeks, and soft spot on top of the skull for young children
  • For young children, no tears when crying

If you or a loved one can't keep down fluids or has had diarrhea for over 24 hours, you should see a medical professional right away. These are signs of severe dehydration.

Heat exhaustion has some similar symptoms to dehydration. As both conditions are related to your body trying to compensate for hot weather, you could experience both at the same time.

Heat exhaustion can develop suddenly or over time, so be sure to keep an eye out for these symptoms:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Cool, moist skin with goosebumps even when you're in the heat
  • Muscle cramps
  • Dizziness
  • Faintness
  • Dark-colored urine (indicating dehydration)
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Low blood pressure when you stand up

If you start to notice signs of heat exhaustion, be sure to move to a cool environment as quickly as possible. You can also try holding a cold towel or ice pack against your forehead to cool down your internal temperature. It's essential that you stay hydrated and cool, taking frequent rest breaks when needed.

Dangers of heat stroke

If left untreated, heat exhaustion can quickly progress to heat stroke. The warning signs of heat stroke include the heat exhaustion symptoms above, as well as

  • Flushed or red skin
  • Trouble breathing
  • Lack of sweating
  • Fever of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
  • Trouble breathing
  • Fainting
  • Seizures

Heat stroke can lead to organ failure or brain damage, so it is critical to seek medical attention right away if you or a loved one experiences these symptoms on a hot day.

Preventing dehydration and heat exhaustion

There are many steps you can take to prevent these conditions before they become serious. For both dehydration and heat exhaustion, be mindful of the temperature outdoors before you spend a day in the sun.

  • Avoid venturing outdoors when the sun is at its peak. The hours between 12 pm and 4 pm are generally the hottest part of the day. 
  • Check the heat index. A heat index of 90 degrees Fahrenheit or above calls for extreme caution, and it may be wise to spend the day in a location with air conditioning instead.
  • Be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Water is always the best go-to beverage on a hot day. Sugary drinks like juice, or beverages containing alcohol can work against your hydration efforts. You can also eat foods with high water content, such as fruits and vegetables.

For heat exhaustion, you can take some additional steps for prevention.

  • Wear loose-fitting and lightweight clothing that allows your body to cool properly. Light-colored clothing will reflect the sunlight rather than absorb it and heat you further.
  • Protect against sunburn with a generous amount of sunscreen. This will also boost your body's ability to cool itself.

While dehydration and heat exhaustion can sound scary, it doesn't mean that you must refrain from the activities you love all summer. You simply need to take the proper precautions to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

More than 3 million people visit an urgent care clinic each week. Most urgent care clinics can help treat mild symptoms of heat-related illnesses, however, if your symptoms are severe or life-threatening, you should seek emergency care.  

 If you have questions about your condition or are unsure where to go for treatment, contact your local Indigo Health clinic.


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