Heat Emergencies: Recognize, Treat, and Prevent

Dietrich Easter


heat emergency

A heat-related emergency can creep up when we don't expect it. This article will analyze the different types of heat-related emergencies and how you treat them. 

Heat emergencies come in several forms. Some people might be thinking of burns here, but this article will specifically discuss environmental emergencies. Under heat emergencies, you have heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

Let's figure out more about these ailments and chat about how you can stay prepared. 


The Categories of Heat Emergencies 

Heat emergencies have specific categories, though each one can overlap with the other, and some people will move through these categories faster than others. 

Here are the two categories: 

  • Heat cramps (an early warning) 

  • Heat exhaustion 

  • Heat stroke

Below, we'll detail each in more depth. After we talk about the signs and the treatment, we'll talk about who is most at risk for heat emergencies and how you can prepare yourself. 


Heat Cramps: Signs and Treatment 

Heat cramps are a common symptom of the beginning stages of heat exhaustion. As your body sweats and your muscles work, certain electrolytes can become imbalanced, leading to incredibly painful cramps. 

These cramps are most likely to start in the legs, and they may happen during or after an extended period of exertion. 

How do you treat heat cramps? Ensure the person moves to a cool area. Then, give them cool drinks to replace lost water. Also, sports drinks or electrolyte drinks can help. Just be sure you don't allow the person back into the heat until they're fully recovered - it's probably best to forgo further activity that day. 


Heat Exhaustion: Symptoms and Treatment 

What is heat exhaustion? Heat exhaustion is the beginning phase of the body's inability to cope with the heat. Think about someone trying to run a marathon. They're running but haven't trained, and eventually, they collapse. Exhausted. Their muscles no longer have the strength the carry them on, even if they wanted to. 

This is the same idea with heat exhaustion - you're not just overheated; you're now past the point of return unless quick action is taken. 

What are the signs? If you see some breathing heavily and sweating - you'll also often see nausea and vomiting; some people may have blurry vision and intermittently pass out. 

If you notice these signs, get the person out of the heat as fast as possible and give them fluids to drink if they can (be careful about trying to give fluids to someone who is in and out of consciousness, you could obstruct their airway). 

Remove excess clothing and fan the person while providing moisture to the skin. Cold packs in the armpits, behind the neck, and groin can aid cooling. Ensure the person can sit or lay down. You want to avoid having them walk at all until they're stable. 

Further, if you notice their condition begins to worsen - they lose consciousness completely, or they're completely delirious - then it's time to call 911. In some cases, if you know the heat exhaustion is bad, you might choose to call 911 even sooner.


Heat Stroke: Signs and Treatment 

Heat stroke is a medical emergency. If you notice any of the signs or symptoms, you need to act fast. 

Heat stroke is the final stage of a heat emergency. After heat exhaustion, if the person doesn't begin to cool down, their body can go into complete overload, leading to shock. How do you know if someone is experiencing heat stroke? 

The tell-tale sign of heat stroke is an altered level of consciousness. If you witness someone go from normal mentation to passing out or delirious, there's a good chance they have heat stroke.  

Another sign of heat stroke is elevated core body temperature, usually above 104 F. However, if someone is unconscious, it doesn't matter what their body temperature is: they need help.  

Finally, one of the oddest symptoms of heat stroke is that the patient may no longer be sweating (this isn't always the case). You might see that the patient has red skin but that their skin is dry. Again, this shows how completely spent the body's cooling mechanisms are. 

How do you treat heat stroke? There are a couple of things to do. 

First, get the patient out of the heat. As you're moving them to a cool spot, have someone call 911. The patient will likely need IV fluids and may require advanced airway control if they remain unconscious. 

Remove extra clothing and drench the patient with cool water - you should also consider placing ice packs in the armpits and the groin. Keep your eye on their breathing.

With heat stroke patients, it may be difficult (or dangerous) to have them drink. However, if they're alert, give them sips of cool water or sports drinks. Keep them still and cool. Actively fanning them can help - make sure they get out of the heat! 

You can read this article for more on treating heat-related illnesses. 


Who Is at Risk for Heat-related Emergencies? 

Knowing how to treat a heat emergency is important but knowing how to prevent them in the first place is even better. Often, the reasons for a heat-related emergency come down to something going wrong before the person is in the heat.

Most people who are playing a sport will know how to take a break when they're tired, drink some water when they're thirsty, and alert someone if they begin to experience cramps. These are all internal ways our bodies keep us safe from the heat. However, there are times when this self-protection cycle is messed up - usually in someone vulnerable or impaired. 


Here are some people at risk of heat stroke: 

  • Older adults 

  • Young children 

  • Impaired individuals 


Let's talk about this a little further. 


Older Adults: Heat Illness 

Some older adults will have trouble staying cool. There are a couple of reasons why. First, they may have a condition that inhibits their ability to feel thirst or sense that they're overheated. Sometimes, they may be taking medications that dull the senses. 

Second, some older adults live alone and may not have air conditioning. In the summer months, it's common for their homes to overheat, and the person inside to become affected by too much heat. 

Finally, older adults may have other ailments compounded by the issue. Where a younger person could easily regulate the high temperature, someone with heart failure may have a low tolerance for deviations in body temp. 

If you know someone who lives alone or has concurrent medical problems, keep them in mind during the very hot months of the summer - make sure they have what they need to stay cool. 


Children: Heat Emergencies 

Young children are some of the most common victims of heat emergencies. There are physiologic reasons that children have a harder time regulating body temperature; however, one of the more common reasons may be their lack of control in certain circumstances. 

For example, we've all heard horror stories about children left in hot vehicles. They don't know how to open the doors, so they end up falling victim to extreme temperatures. 

Another common situation is the young baby who is overdressed and trapped in a car seat or a stroller. Believe it or not, these emergencies don't just happen in the summer months. Parents often overdress their babies in the cooler months, and this can lead to overheating. 

Always watch young kids. If they are sweating, acting irritated, or turning red, they may be overheating. Ensure they have liquids and a cool environment. 

Finally, let's talk about one last category. 


Impaired People: Heat-Related Emergencies 

This may be obvious, but it's good to keep in mind. Anyone who's under the influence (large or small) of drugs (including alcohol), prescription or otherwise, may be at risk of heat-related illness. 

This common scenario is someone drinking while playing an outdoor activity or trying to go for a hike after taking a new prescription medication. These substances can reduce the ability to feel thirst, reduce the body's ability to respond to increasing temperature, and increase the likelihood of a heat emergency. 


How to Prepare for the Heat 

If you're performing an outdoor activity in a heated environment, take the time to stop and rest and sip cool liquids continuously. Water should always be available. Old-fashioned ideas of "no water" during conditioning are dangerous and foolish. If your kid tells you their coach denied them water, it might be time for a new coach.  

Here are a few things to keep close during the hot months: 

  • Plenty of pure water. 

  • Sports drinks for electrolytes 

  • Handheld fans/with mist 

  • Light clothing

  • Cold packs 

  • Thermometer 


Also, make sure you avoid alcohol while out in the heat. Many recommend avoiding caffeine as well, as this may facilitate dehydration. 


Final Thoughts: Heat Emergencies 

Don't overlook the heat! Be sure to stock your family medical kit with water and cooling packs. Also, sports drinks are useful. 

If you know what to look for and you know what to avoid, you'll be that much closer to protecting your family from the very real threat of heat-related illness. 

Be sure to get some live training. Also, know that the advice in this article is for informational purposes only. It may change in the future. Always follow local laws and consult with a trusted physician.