Heat exhaustion is one of the most common summer medical emergencies, and Arizona’s hot and dry climate make the state a certified “hot spot” for heat exhaustion.
What is heat exhaustion, what are its common symptoms, and what can you do to prevent it? We’re glad you asked! Urgent Care Extra’s team of medical experts has put together this comprehensive, all-in-one resource to help you make sense of this often misunderstood illness.
Heat Exhaustion 101
Heat exhaustion is what it sounds like: fatigue and lethargy caused by exposure to extremely hot weather. But it’s not simply being tired that makes heat exhaustion so dangerous. The actual mechanism that causes heat exhaustion is dehydration.
Whenever someone experiences heat exhaustion, an overwhelming sensation is lightheadedness or dizziness (we’ll discuss symptoms a bit later). But the catalyst behind this sudden fatigue is actually severe dehydration.
The two primary types of dehydration – and thus the two main root causes of heat exhaustion – are restricted water hydration and low salt levels in the body. Let’s quickly take a look at how these different symptoms are related to each kind of dehydration.
- Excessive thirst
- Severe headache
- Dizziness / lightheaded sensation
- Painful muscle cramps
- Shaking extremities / trembling
Although Arizona has more than its share of heat exhaustion cases, everybody across the country is at-risk. A random glimpse at the latest related medical emergencies includes an Ohio firefighter treated for heat exhaustion battling an industrial fire, a New Jersey senior citizen rescued during a northeastern heat wave and, tragically, a young Texas father who died as a result of heat exhaustion.
The bottom line: heat exhaustion is not just a Southwest illness. It can happen anywhere, at any time, even if temperatures aren’t considered excessive. The other big takeaway from these news stories is that, if not addressed with proper treatment, heat exhaustion can kill.
Heat Exhaustion: Before and After
Usually, heat exhaustion begins with heat cramps. This is an early warning sign of sorts, a signal that means your body isn’t getting enough hydration. Athletes practicing outdoors in intense heat, senior citizens in a sweltering room with defective air conditioning and others can experience heat cramps. The most common “trouble spots” for cramps are the calves, thighs and back.
Untreated heat exhaustion can eventually lead to a more serious form of heat-related illness called a heat stroke. A heat stroke happens when prolonged hot temperatures (and very little hydration) cause a lack of blood or oxygen flow to the brain. Like a regular stroke, the heat-related variety can cause paralysis, permanent nerve damage and even death. Essentially, a heat stroke causes the body to literally “overheat.” A core temperature of 105 degrees or more can result in a heat stroke. Once this internal temperature level is reached and maintained, the body’s nervous system starts to shut down. Severe nausea and seizures are two common symptoms of a heat stroke. Most common in people over 50 years old, it’s also one of the most prevalent heat illnesses in athletes and younger people, too. That’s why it’s so critical to get medical treatment immediately when suffering from heat exhaustion.
Heat Exhaustion: The Most Common Symptoms
Heat exhaustion symptoms can range from relatively minor warning signs to near heat stroke conditions. We already reviewed the distinct differences between water and salt dehydration, and some other symptoms to watch out for include:
- Memory loss or confusion
- Extreme fatigue
- Painful cramps
- Headache (including migraine headache)
- Fast heartbeat
- Excessive perspiration
- Vomiting and / or nausea
- Pale skin
- Dark urine (one of the telltale signs of heat exhaustion)
Local Concerns: Hot Weather, Hiking, Heat-Related Activities and More
Arizona’s unique climate means that residents and visitors – especially during the hot summer season – should be aware of the risk factors involved with heat exhaustion. In particular, keep an eye on the relative humidity and heat index. A humidity level over 60% (somewhat of a rarity in the hot, dry Arizona climate) and a heat index of 90 or above (quite common in most parts of AZ) present the “perfect storm” for the onset of heat exhaustion.
Preventing Heat Exhaustion
With record temperatures already recorded in early summer, Arizona’s reputation as “heat exhaustion headquarters” is in no danger of faltering. If you’re headed outside for yard work, competitive sports or a hike in the great outdoors, keep these tips and tricks in mind to help avoid heat exhaustion:
- Hydrate frequently. Since dehydration is the underlying cause of heat exhaustion, make sure you take plenty of water wherever you’re headed.
- Use a strong sunscreen. SPF 50 or greater is recommended, as this will help alleviate the harsh effects of the Arizona sunshine.
- Don’t button up too much. Keep your clothing as comfortable and loose-fitting as possible. This will allow your skin to breathe and thus ward off dehydration optimally.
- Don’t overdo it. Arizona in the summer can be brutal. Whenever you’re feeling a little tired, experience heat cramps or start to get the slightest bit dizzy, relax. Take a break. Get some water. The most important thing to remember: don’t “push through” obvious pain or discomfort.
- Hikers, beware. Arizona outdoor enthusiasts are drawn outside by the state’s obvious natural beauty and endless activities, but a quick word of caution: make sure you have a buddy alongside you, especially for hikes and nature walks at places like Superstition Mountain, Camelback Mountain, Mount Lemon (one of Tucson’s most popular peaks) and other popular trails. Heat exhaustion thrives on unprepared hikers, so have a plan. Take plenty of H2O. Wear the right gear. In short, don’t avoid the outdoors. But if you’re going on an extended walk, play it smart. And safe.
Urgent Care Extra – Your First Line of Defense Against Arizona Heat Exhaustion
With no-appointment, walk-in healthcare facilities all across the state, Urgent Care Extra can help treat heat exhaustion symptoms, and also help you avoid heat exhaustion in the first place. Each of our emergency care clinics has the medical equipment, diagnostic capability and personnel to help remedy heat exhaustion.
If you or a family member experience heat exhaustion, stop by one of our Arizona walk-in clinics today. Summer temps aren’t getting any cooler, but thankfully we’re right here to help you remain healthy and happy, even in the midst of a typical sweltering Arizona summer!
Thanks for reading the UCE blog. For any questions about heat exhaustion, please call our main office at (480) 988-9108.