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Published on August 10, 2020

Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion: What You Need to Know

When it’s hot out, our bodies have to work extra hard to maintain a stable temperature. With extreme heat advisories in effect locally, it’s critical that people working outside or participating in other outdoor activities take steps to cool down.

“Heat-related deaths and illnesses are completely preventable,” said Dr. Byron Geer, Emergency Physician at Wayne UNC Health Care. “However, more than 600 people die each year from extreme heat. It’s important to protect yourself when you’re out in the sun.”

While the Wayne UNC Emergency Department doesn’t see a significant number of these cases, Dr. Geer says oppressive heat like the area has experienced in recent weeks can lead to heat cramps and heat rash.

Warning Signs of Heat-Related Illness

Recognizing the signs of heat-related illness is one of the first steps of prevention, said Dr. Geer.

Heat cramps, one of the milder heat-related illness, are painful, involuntary muscle spasms that occur during heavy exercise in hot environments. Usually caused in part by fluid and electrolyte loss, the spasms can be more intense than typical nighttime leg cramps.

“With heat cramps, it’s important to get in a cool environment, cool down and drink water or a sports drink with electrolytes for the remainder of the day, said Dr. Geer.

A more serious condition, heat exhaustion can include heavy sweating and a rapid pulse – a result of your body overheating. Caused by exposure to high temperatures, high humidity and strenuous activity, heat exhaustion requires prompt treatment to avoid heatstroke, which is life threatening.

Heatstroke can come as a result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures and physical exertion, when your body temperature rises to over 104 degrees F. Heatstroke can damage your brain, heart, kidneys and muscles and requires emergency treatment.

Tips for Staying Safe in Extreme Heat

Dr. Geer offers the following tips for preventing heat-related illness:

  • Avoid the heat if you can. If you have to be outside, stay out of the sun as much as possible. Take frequent breaks in air-conditioned areas whenever you get the chance.
  • Drink a lot of water, and skip soda and alcohol, which have dehydrating effects. Drink water regularly, before you feel thirsty. Sports drinks with electrolytes are a good option, too, but drink them in moderation because of their sugar content.
  • Dress properly. It sounds like a no-brainer, but light-colored, loose-fitting clothing can make a big difference in your ability to cool down.
  • Be aware of the people in your life who might need extra care. The very young (babies and toddlers) and the elderly are at heightened risk for heat-related illness, as are people with chronic conditions such as heart disease and obesity. Some medications, including beta blockers, make it difficult to regulate body temperature. If you know someone living without air conditioning, consider checking on them or even inviting them to stay with you during the heat wave.
  • Don’t leave any living being—child or pet—in your car, even for a minute. Every year many children and pets die in cars, where the interior heat can reach very high temperatures very quickly, even when it’s not that hot outside.
  • Wear sunscreen. Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 15 before going outside. And make sure you’re applying it correctly.

Learn more about signs and symptoms of heat-related illness from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

For more information, please contact Kimberly Fazio at 919-587-4792 or

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