The difference between heat exhaustion and heatstroke
Wednesday 11 December 2019
Queenslanders know better than most just how hot summers can be. When it’s scorching outside, we switch on the air conditioners, keep our water chilled with ice, and slip, slop, slap, seek and slide. But when the mercury soars to extreme levels, we can get more than just hot and sweaty – heatwaves can put our health in danger.
In Australia, major heatwaves cause more deaths than bushfires, cyclones, earthquakes, floods and severe storms combined. As heatwaves are projected to last longer and occur more often, extreme heat could put more people at risk of harm.
It’s important to know how to care for our health when we’re faced with extreme heat. We’ve explored the symptoms of heatstroke and other heat-related illnesses, how to treat them, and tips for staying safe during heatwaves.
What is heat-related illness and what causes it?
Heat-related illnesses include heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. These conditions can occur when we are exposed to extreme heat and our body can no longer cool itself or function effectively.
So how does it happen? Our body’s natural defence against overheating is sweating. Sweat evaporates from our skin and helps to cool us down. But in some situations, our body can’t sweat enough to stay cool, or sweating alone won’t combat the conditions we’re facing. When our body temperature rises to dangerous levels, it can be fatal.
Some of the factors that contribute to heat-related illness include:
- Heatwaves – three or more days of high maximum and minimum temperatures that are unusual for the location or time of year
- Overexercising, particularly in hot conditions
- Wearing heavy, tight clothing in hot environments
- Lack of airflow, confined spaces, and crowded conditions, such as concerts and sporting events
- Exposure to radiant heat from bushfires
- Being in a parked car, particularly in hot conditions.
Heat-related illness can affect anyone, but those at greatest risk include:
- Older people, particularly the frail and those living alone
- Babies and young children
- People with existing medical conditions, such as heart disease
- People on certain medications, especially fluid tablets
- People on fluid-restricted diets
- People who use recreational drugs.
Symptoms and treatment for heat-related conditions
If you recognise the signs and symptoms of any heat-related illness, it’s important to take action. Spotting the signs early helps to lower the risk of heatstroke, a condition that can cause permanent organ damage and potentially death, if untreated.
Anyone with a heart condition, diabetes, kidney disease, high blood pressure, or following a low sodium or fluid-restricted diet should seek medical help right away if symptoms of heat-related illness are present.
|What to look for||What to do|
Can lead to heat exhaustion without prompt treatment
Can be an early warning sign of heat exhaustion
Can lead to heatstroke without prompt treatment
This is a medical emergency – call Triple Zero (000) immediately
As per heat exhaustion, plus:
Preventing heat-related illness
Heat-related illnesses can be prevented. It’s important to be prepared for extreme heat, especially if you have existing medical conditions.
- Stay hydrated
- Stay out of the heat as much as possible
- Keep your space cool with circulating air
- Wear weather-appropriate clothing and protect yourself from sun damage
- Rest often and save strenuous activities for the cooler parts of the day
- Monitor for signs of heat-related illness and act promptly
- Check in on others, especially those who are older, sick or frail.
Babies and young children are more vulnerable to the effects of extreme heat, as they can’t adapt easily to changing temperatures. Take extra steps to care for young children during hot weather, and never leave anyone (including pets) unattended in a car.