Heat Exhaustion vs Heat Stroke: Recognizing the Signs

Heat Exhaustion vs Heat Stroke: Recognizing the Signs

On average, July is the hottest month of the year in Chicago. While air conditioning units are becoming more common across the city, many apartments and homes are still without central air. Those without it may experience some uncomfortably warm days at home—but for seniors, those uncomfortably warm days can be dangerous.

Adults over 65 are more likely to experience serious heat-related illnesses, such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Many individuals confuse these two conditions, but it is important to recognize the distinct differences between heat exhaustion vs heat stroke. Knowing the differences could save your loved one’s life.

Heat Exhaustion vs Heat Stroke: Recognizing the Signs

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is fatigued from trying to cool down for extended periods of time. Though this isn’t always the case, those who experience heat exhaustion are often partaking in some sort of physical activity in a hot, humid environment. However, it is possible to experience this condition without partaking in physical activity.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Cold, pale, and clammy skin
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Tiredness and/or weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Fainting

If you or a loved one experiences any combination of these symptoms, move to a cooler (ideally air-conditioned) location. Remove any tight-fitting clothes or extra layers and sip water. Take a cool shower or use cold compresses to lower your body temperature. If vomiting continues and the condition doesn’t improve after about an hour, seek medical help.

Untreated heat exhaustion can turn to heat stroke, so it’s important you act quickly.

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke occurs when the body can no longer control its core temperature. The sweating mechanism fails, the body’s temperature rapidly rises, and the body is unable to cool down. Heat stroke is a serious medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention as quickly as possible.

Symptoms of heat stroke include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Confusion
  • Losing consciousness
  • Fast and strong pulse
  • Hot, red skin
  • No sweating
  • High body temperature (103+)

The key factors that show the clear difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion are the last three bullet points. If you suspect a loved one is experiencing a heat stroke, call 911 immediately. Move to a cooler location (preferably air-conditioned), use cold compresses to reduce body temperature, and do not give them fluids.

Know the signs of heat related illness to protect your loved one

How to stay safe in extreme heat

Thankfully, extreme heat shouldn’t catch you by surprise. In the days leading up to extreme heat, the National Weather Service will regularly share heat advisories. These updates will automatically come to your smartphone, but if you do not have a smartphone you can see them on your local news.

From that point on, you can make a safety plan. Make sure your loved one’s air conditioning or window units work ahead of time. If there seems to be a problem, purchase window fans as soon as possible. Locate the spots in your home that get warmest, as well as the spots that stay coolest, and consider setting up a home base there.

It’s a good idea to spend the hottest points of the day with your loved one in the library, at a mall, a museum, or any location that you know will be cool. If the weather is going to be extreme for several days, you may want to see if you can stay with a family member or friend for that period of time.

In extreme heat, take care of yourself. Do not forget to:

  • Stay hydrated. Did you know you are already mildly dehydrated by the time you are thirsty? Keep a bottle of cold water with you at all times.
  • Wear light clothing. Your clothes should not only be lightweight, but light in color. Lightweight clothing allows more airflow, and light-colored items bounce light instead of soaking it up.
  • Reduce strenuous activity. Especially during the warmest points in the day, don’t expend too much energy on physically demanding activities.
  • Avoid using the oven or stove to prepare meals. Before a heat wave, prepare whatever meals you would like to have for the next several days. Cooking heats up the home, so default to foods that can be heated in the microwave or eaten cold.

For more information on staying safe in extreme heat, read our blog post from last summer.

Stay safe with the help of a caregiver

During extreme heat waves, everything feels a little more difficult. Seniors, in particular, need to be careful about expending their energy to avoid heat-related illnesses. If your loved one has been experiencing problems maintaining the activities of daily living, consider hiring the help of an at-home caregiver.

For 30 years, Home Care Powered by AUAF has supported seniors in the greater Chicago area. Our caregivers proudly support seniors with any activities of daily living they need assistance with, including personal care, light housekeeping, and companionship. For more information on how we can support you or a loved one, give us a call at 773-274-9262.

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