Heat Stroke vs Heat Exhaustion

By Julia Navalta, FNP-BC

Summer is not over yet!  Days of extreme heat are still up ahead.  Heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke, are very common during this time of year.  An estimated 618 deaths in the United States occur every year due to extreme heat exposure.  It is important that people learn to prevent and recognize signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses.

What are heat-related illnesses?  These occur when a body is exposed to extreme heat and is unable to properly cool itself down fast enough.  As a result, damage to the brain and other vital organs may occur.

Heat exhaustion occurs after being exposed to extreme heat for several days, without adequate replacement of fluids.  It is a milder form of heat-related illness, but if left untreated, may progress to heat stroke.

Signs and Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Fast and weak pulses
  • Paleness
  • Fast and shallow breathing
  • Muscle cramps
  • Tiredness
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Fainting

If these occur, and worsen or last longer than one hour, seek medical attention immediately.

The most serious type of heat-related illness is heat stroke.  This occurs when the body’s temperature rises too fast, and the body’s ability to cool itself down through sweating fails.  The body’s temperature rises up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or more within minutes and may result in death or permanent disability if not treated immediately.

Signs and symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Body temperature above 103 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Hot, red skin without sweating
  • Fast, strong pulse
  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Confusion
  • Unconsciousness

Immediate medical assistance is needed if any of these occur.  If you witness an individual with these signs and symptoms, get medical assistance as soon as possible, monitor the victim’s temperature if possible, safely move the victim to a shady area, and cool the victim down with cool water.

It is important to keep cool by staying in air-conditioned places as much as possible, wearing loose, light-weight clothing, taking cool showers/baths, and not engaging in very strenuous activities.  Wearing sunscreen is very important, as sunburn affects the body’s ability to cool down.  Never leave anyone in vehicles, even if the window is cracked open.

It is equally important to stay hydrated as well.  Avoid very sugary or alcoholic drinks.  For heavy sweating, sports drinks are appropriate to replace salt and mineral loss.

Older adults, infants, children, people with multiple chronic medical conditions, athletes, outdoor workers, and lower income groups are the most vulnerable to suffering heat-related illnesses (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019).  So, if you or one of your loved ones fall into one of these high-risk categories, it is very important to stay hydrated and cool during days of extreme weather, as well as to pay close attention that you and your loved ones, are not already experiencing signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses.

When planning the rest of your summer adventures, make sure you and your loved ones are prepared to beat the heat!


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2019, July 19). Extreme heat.  Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/disasters/extremeheat/index.html


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