© Maskot/Getty Images People who are most at risk of heat exhaustion are children under four and people over 65.
- Heat exhaustion symptoms include rapid pulse, nausea, fatigue, and lightheadedness.
- Heat exhaustion usually happens in hot, humid environments when the body is dehydrated and can’t cool itself properly.
- To prevent heat exhaustion stay hydrated and try to avoid exercising, or otherwise exerting yourself, during the hottest parts of the day.
- This article was medically reviewed by Jason R. McKnight, MD, MS, a family medicine physician and clinical assistant professor at Texas A&M College of Medicine.
- This story is part of Insider’s guide to Heat Illness.
Heat exhaustion is a heat-related illness that happens when the body overheats and cannot cool itself effectively. It’s often caused by exposure to extreme heat and humidity. Common symptoms include heavy sweating and rapid pulse.
Heat exhaustion can happen to anyone, but those most at risk include children under four and people over age 65.
Most often, it occurs when people exercise or work outdoors in hot or humid conditions. However, heat exhaustion can also happen indoors, like if you’re in a car with the windows rolled up during the summer.
This article discusses the symptoms of heat exhaustion, who’s most at risk, and how to treat and prevent it from happening in the future.
Heat exhaustion symptoms
Heat exhaustion is not as serious as heatstroke. However, if you’re experiencing the following symptoms, you should seek treatment immediately since heat exhaustion can develop into heatstroke, a more dangerous heat-related illness.
The main symptoms of heat exhaustion are:
- Heavy sweating
- Rapid pulse
- Cool, clammy, or pale skin
You may also experience heat cramps, another type of heat-related illness that causes muscle spasms and can be a precursor to heat exhaustion.
Heat exhaustion causes
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body overheats. Normal body temperature is usually around 98.6 °F but it can vary between 97 °F and 99 °F. The body can easily overheat when it’s dehydrated and in hot, humid environments. Exerting yourself under these conditions, like exercising, can accelerate the process.
“Your body temperature can increase about a degree for every five minutes of exercise you’re doing,” says Joshua Scott, MD, primary care sports medicine physician at Cedars-Sinai Kerlin-Jobe Institute.
Sweat is the main way your body cools itself down. But in humid environments, sweat doesn’t evaporate as quickly, which can cause you to overheat. Add high temperatures and exercise to the mix, and you can easily overheat before you know it.
Heat exhaustion treatment
If you’re experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion, it’s important to cool yourself down immediately. Try the following treatments:
- Get out of the heat. Seek shade or get indoors — and preferably in air conditioning — if you can.
- Hydrate. Sweating cools you down, but it causes you to lose fluids and electrolytes, which are minerals that help keep you hydrated. To treat heat exhaustion, you need to replenish those fluids by drinking water or a sports drink like Gatorade for electrolytes.
- Use cool water. Help to bring your body temperature down by taking a cool bath or shower, spraying yourself with a garden hose, or by putting wet, cool cloths on your body.
- Loosen your clothing. Remove any tight or unnecessary clothing if you notice symptoms of heat exhaustion. Multiple layers can trap heat and make it harder for your body to cool itself — light fabrics and loose clothing are always best when it’s hot.
Heat exhaustion prevention
If you’re going to be exercising or working outside in the heat, here are three of the best ways to protect yourself:
1. Avoid the hottest part of the day
Some jobs, like working construction, may require you to be outdoors all day, but if you can, try to avoid being outside around 3 p.m. to 4:30 p.m., when temperatures are highest.
If you’re planning to go for a run, check the weather for the day, and if the high is more than 101 degrees Fahrenheit, choose a cooler time of day to be outside, like the morning or evening.
2. Take frequent breaks
When you’re in hot and humid conditions, Scott recommends taking a 10-minute break for every 40 minutes of exercise.
Exercising quickly raises your body temperature. Giving yourself time to rest can help your body adjust to these changes.
3. Stay hydrated
When you’re dehydrated, your body can’t produce enough sweat to cool down. Make sure to take a drink about every 15 to 20 minutes while you work out, Scott says.
Overall, you should be consuming about 100 fluid ounces of liquid a day, even if you don’t feel thirsty. You usually don’t feel thirsty until you’re already dehydrated, Scott says, so it’s important to drink water throughout the day, and especially when you’re working out.
“Dehydration can start to reduce muscle strength which can then reduce your body’s ability to thermoregulate itself,” Scott says. “So the problems start long before you get thirsty.”
When to see a doctor
If heat exhaustion symptoms don’t improve within an hour of onset or they get worse, you need to seek immediate medical attention.