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Jefferson Health

Home of Sidney Kimmel Medical College

How to Protect Yourself from the Dangers of Excessive Heat

Prolonged exposure to high summer temperatures can affect the whole body. Here’s how to outsmart a heat wave and keep your body functioning at its best.

Historic heat waves blanketed much of the country this summer as temperatures reached record highs. This has led to excessive heat warnings in many cities. You probably know the basics of getting through a heat wave—stay cool, stay inside and drink plenty of water. But do you know what symptoms to look for when it comes to dehydration, heat stroke, heat exhaustion and heat rash?

Internal medicine specialist Dr. Edward Reis shares how to recognize and respond to these symptoms in order to prevent heat-related illnesses that could potentially impact the whole body.

Symptoms Beyond Dehydration

“Dehydration is the first symptom most people experience when over-exposed to heat, but other symptoms are easy to miss,” says Dr. Reis. Look out for feelings of:

  • Tiredness and weakness
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Headaches
  • Flushed skin
  • Muscle cramps
  • Dry mouth
  • Thirst

Over-exposure to heat can cause other moderate heat-related illnesses, such as heat rash, which appears as red clusters of small blisters across the skin, and heat exhaustion. People with heat exhaustion might experience the same symptoms as dehydration, but may also experience:

  • Confusion and delirium
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Heavy sweating
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Fainting and losing consciousness

Treating Heat-Related Illness

When you act fast, dehydration, heat rash and heat exhaustion can be reversed by moving to a cool area out of the sun, slowly sipping water and drinking a sports drink to help replace your body’s salts, minerals and electrolytes. “If your symptoms continue for longer than an hour or worsen, contact your primary care provider or call 9-1-1,” Dr. Reis advises.

Left untreated, dehydration and heat exhaustion can lead to something much more severe: heat stroke. People suffering from heat stroke usually experience symptoms similar to heat exhaustion in addition to a high fever (above 103 degrees Fahrenheit) and potential seizures.

“Heat stroke is a medical emergency and these symptoms should be taken seriously. If you or someone you know is experiencing heat stroke, call 9-1-1 immediately,” urges Dr. Reis.

What Increases Your Risk

Those more likely to be affected by high temperatures include young children, infants and adults 65 and older. This is because their bodies have to work harder to regulate temperature, and can become dehydrated quickly.

Heat can also be more treacherous for people with heart or lung conditions, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, a congenital heart condition or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“Excessive heat can put stress on the heart to circulate more blood in order to cool the body,” explains Dr. Reis. “And high levels of humidity can compromise the lungs and the ability to breathe, which can cause confusion, changes in mental state, risk of seizures and eventually heat stroke.”

Additionally, certain medications can affect how the body reacts to heat. Beta blockers, for example, interfere with the body’s heat regulation.

For those at risk, heat stroke can be life-threatening. “Check in daily on your neighbors, friends or family members who are at risk and keep an eye out for signs of heat exhaustion or heat stroke,” advises Dr. Reis.

Stay Alert and Take Precautions

No matter your age or risk level, during a heat wave it’s important to check your local news for extreme heat alerts, safety tips and information about cooling shelters. Take care of yourself and others by monitoring symptoms and practicing general heat safety:

  • Stay inside and stay cool
  • Make sure your home has sufficient air flow
  • Wear light, loose-fitting clothing
  • Avoid heavy physical activity in the heat
  • Avoid going outside during the hottest time of day (mid-afternoon)
  • Drink plenty of water (at least five cups a day)
  • Avoid caffeinated drinks and alcohol as they can cause dehydration

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