Heat exhaustion is a frequent cause of summertime health complications, and you may have experienced its symptoms in the past. Because the body has to maintain a very narrow range of internal core temperature, it's not uncommon for people to experience heat-related illnesses, especially in the warmer months when the body's internal thermostat (thermoregulatory mechanism) gets overburdened.
But just because heat-related illness is common doesn't mean it's not also serious or even lethal in some cases. With a better understanding of the mechanics behind these ailments and why hydration is so critical, you can enjoy warmer weather without dealing with the potential side effects.
What Happens During a Heat Stroke
Heat-related illnesses exist on a spectrum — heat stroke is the most severe, followed by other conditions like heat cramps and heat exhaustion. The first signs of a minor heat illness include dizziness, cramps, muscular tightening and spasms, and lightheadedness, according to the National Athletic Trainers' Association.
If you don't properly hydrate, symptoms can worsen until the body completely loses its ability to cool itself, resulting in heat stroke. By definition, heat stroke occurs when your core body temperature is 104 degrees F and above, and you display a neurological dysfunction sign or symptom, such as confusion or irritability, according to Santosh Sinha, MD, an internal medicine physician with Dignity Health Medical Group - Bakersfield, a service of Dignity Health Medical Foundation.
If the body suffers from heat exhaustion for too long, this can cause irreversible damage to several organ systems. During a heat stroke, your heart muscles won't contract normally, and its nerve conduction won't occur properly. The body generally begins shutting down because many of its internal processes and systems are related in some way to body temperature.
Dr. Sinha recommends being especially alert to these types of warning signs if you're exposed to high temperatures outside or performing activities that generate body heat, such as running, playing sports, dancing, or any other strenuous physical activity.
Treatment Options for Heat-Related Illnesses
When it comes to heat exhaustion, getting into a cool, shady environment that's out of direct sunlight and drinking plenty of fluids are your best choices for treatment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Room temperature water, between about 50 to 60 degrees F, tends to be more palatable, but it's also better for your body. "No one wants to drink a hot beverage if you're dehydrated, but drinking very cold ice water may not be a good idea," said Dr. Sinha. "When cold water goes into the stomach, it can constrict the capillaries, cause stomach cramps, and decrease the absorption rate."
If your body doesn't have enough water, its sweating mechanism will not function properly. Dr. Sinha compares a dehydrated body to a car engine without coolant in the radiator. Just as an engine would seize and stop functioning, a human body will do the same if it experiences extreme heat for too long without proper hydration.
How to Prevent Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
You can easily avoid dehydration and heat-related illnesses with the right preparation and preventive care. Exact specifications for recommended daily water intake can vary based on sex, height, weight, clothing choices, local climate conditions, physical activity level, and certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, heart disease, or kidney failure. But the easiest indicator is any level of thirst — if you're feeling thirsty, you're already dehydrated.
Because the stomach can only hold and empty a certain amount of water at a time, Dr. Sinha recommends drinking a moderate amount throughout the day. Carrying a water bottle with you at all times can make this habit easier to remember and maintain over time.
Dr. Sinha also recommends drinking water long after physical activities because it takes time for the body to reach maximum hydration. "When someone eats a meal or snack, they should drink water," he said. "Another way to remember is to drink water whenever you stand."
While water remains the most highly recommended option for hydrating your body, many vegetables, such as cucumbers, celery, and lettuce, as well as fruits, such as melons, strawberries, and apples, contain water. Other beverages can also offer hydration, but be cautious of energy drinks. Always remember to check the nutrition panel to ensure you aren't consuming too much sugar or caffeine along with the water.
Heat exhaustion is commonplace, particularly in the warmer seasons or for very physically active people, especially if they are not physically fit or heat acclimatized. But that doesn't diminish the serious consequences heat-related illness can have if you don't stay hydrated and keep your body at the right temperature. Speak with your doctor about any concerns you might have regarding preventing heat-related illness.