Heat exhaustion is no joke. It can quickly ruin your day and thwart your plans for adventure, and if not tended to immediately, can lead to much, much worse things, including comas. Brain damage. Death.
Well, I have experienced heat exhaustion while hiking in Badlands National Park and it super sucks. But when handled properly, you can be back up on your feet again in no time! So here is my little heat exhaustion survival guide:
What is heat exhaustion?
Heat exhaustion occurs when a person has been exposed to high temperatures and their body can’t cool itself off properly. It usually happens when they’ve been exercising in hot weather, sweating a lot, or not drinking enough fluids.
It happens in hot, dry weather when the body is perspiring excessively, leading to dehydration. The dehydration then leads to muscle cramps, weakness, nausea, and vomiting, which makes it hard to consume enough fluids to replenish your body and continue producing sweat. Without sweat, your body loses its ability to cool itself off, causing your body temperature to rise.
It can also happen in excessive humidity. When moisture levels in the air are really high, sweat can’t evaporate off your body and remains on your skin, trapping body heat. With no way for the heat to escape, it stays in your body, raising your core temperature.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion:
- Dark-colored urine (a sign of dehydration)
- Muscle or abdominal cramps
- Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Pale skin
- Profuse sweating
- Rapid heartbeat
I first started feeling signs of heat exhaustion while hiking the Castle Trail in Badlands National Park. This trail is 10 miles long, and completely exposed. And in 80-90 degree weather, that gets really brutal, really fast. After awhile I started getting a hint of a headache. Not long after that it turned into feeling a little faint. And that was followed by nausea. Then vomiting all over the trail. At that point I knew I had heat exhaustion, and it was time to act.
How to prevent heat exhaustion?
Obviously the best thing to do for heat exhaustion is to not get it in the first place. So if you know you’re going to be spending time outdoors during the warmer months, be smart about it. Here are some tips to keep you safe and cool:
- Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing. Light colors reflect the sun and absorb less heat, and cotton/polyester blends breathe better than heaver knits like 100% cotton.
- Keep your skin covered. This one might seem counterintuitive, but clothing can actually act as a cooling device as the wind blows through your wet, sweaty shirt. And the clothes can also prevent the heat from being absorbed directly into your body.
- Wear a hat, preferably a wide-brimmed, well-ventilated one. The blood vessels in your head and neck are close to the skin surface, so you tend to gain or lose heat there very quickly.
- Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more.
- Avoid doing strenuous physical activity during the hottest or most humid times of the day. And if you do head outside, take it easy until temps cool down if possible.
- If traveling to a place that is hotter than where you live, it can take your body up to a week to acclimate to the difference. So try to do chill activities for your first few days and build up to the more physical stuff.
- Steer clear of alcohol, caffeine, and smoking. Alcohol and caffeine speed up dehydration (hello hangovers), while smoking constricts blood vessels, which impedes your body’s ability to acclimate to the heat.
- DRINK FLUIDS!!! Particularly water and electrolyte beverages such as Gatorade. Gatorade and similar drinks help replenish potassium and salt lost during increased sweating (you know those nasty looking white marks left on your shirt after the sweat dries? Yep, salt). Electrolyte tablets are also awesome and can be mixed with water as needed.
- It helps to start hydrating before you even venture outside. Start chugging that water a couple hours before heading out so you start off fully hydrated, then continue drinking at least 8oz of fluids every 30 minutes you spend exercising outdoors (even if you aren’t thirsty).
- This one might sound obvious, but use whatever you have on hand as a fan to create a breeze. Hats, maps, giant leaves… you can make anything work if you try hard enough.
- Become your own personal swamp cooler. Pour cool water over your head and neck, or soak a bandanna or shirt in water. As air blows over the water, it will function in the same way as an evaporative cooler, helping lower your body temperature.
How to handle heat exhaustion after it sets in?
If you’re anything like me and did literally nothing right and ended up getting heat exhaustion, the good news is it’s pretty easy to treat if you act fast.
That’s the key though. As soon as the symptoms start kicking in, do something about it. Don’t try to play it tough and stick it out. It doesn’t work like that. If you don’t lower your body temp ASAP, it can lead to seriously bad things. So the quicker you fix it, the faster and easier it is to make it go away so you can get back to adventuring!
Here’s what to do:
- Immediately get out of the heat and head indoors to air-conditioning or to a shaded place.
- Rest. Lay down with your legs and feet slightly elevated.
- Loosen your clothing and remove any unnecessary articles.
- Apply a cool compress to your head, neck, and chest. Spray or splash your body with water. Take a cool shower. Sit in a cold pool or river. Basically use cold water to help cool your body temperature down faster.
- Drink lots and lots of fluids to help re-hydrate your body. So drink some water. And then drink more water.
- Cool down any other way you can. Once my nausea passed and I was feeling a little better, we bought popsicles and ice cream in the park general store. Still avoid caffeine and alcohol though- they’ll make your dehydration worse.
If these things don’t start to help within 30 minutes or so, it’s time to seek help. Call 911 if you are experiencing:
- A very high, weak pulse rate and rapid shallow breathing.
- Lack of consciousness, disorientation, or have a persistent high body temperature.
- Warm and dry skin, elevated or lowered blood pressure, and hyperventilation.
If left untreated, heat exhaustion can turn into heat stroke which is much, much worse. And more dangerous.
Experiencing heat exhaustion will leave your body more sensitive to high temperatures for the next week or so, so take it easy for awhile, especially during the next 24 hours or your body could relapse.
My personal story with heat exhaustion: as soon as I knew it reached the point of no return, we concocted our plan to get me off the trail and into shade ASAP. One friend escorted me back to the road via a spur trail (which was the shortest possible route for me to have to walk), while the others back tracked on the trail to where we left our car. My friend (who luckily for me was training to be an EMT) found shade for me, helped me lay down and get comfortable, and then made cool compresses for me until the others could return with the car. As my nausea subsided, I started sipping on water. By the time they got back with the car, I was already feeling much better. And after sitting in the air-conditioned car, I felt almost back to normal again. A popsicle back at the visitor center general store was the cherry on top and had me back on my feet!
What can happen if you don’t deal with your heat exhaustion immediately:
If you don’t treat your heat exhaustion right away and allow your body temperature to continue to rise and remain at those higher temps for too long, it can lead to heat stroke.
Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related injury and is a full blown medical emergency. It can cause brain damage, damage to other vital organs and your nervous system, and even death.
Symptoms of heat stroke are similar to heat exhaustion, but can also involve seizures, disorientation, and loss of consciousness. The biggest indicator of heat stroke is having a core body temperature of 104 degrees or higher.
I thought this was interesting, so I thought you guys might enjoy this little chart I found too:
- 97.7–99.5 °F: Normal, a typically reported range for body temperature.
- 100.4 °F: (this is classed as hyperthermia if not caused by a fever) Feeling hot, sweating, feeling thirsty, feeling very uncomfortable, slightly hungry. If this is caused by fever, there may also be chills.
- 102.2 °F: Severe sweating, flushed and red. Fast heart rate and breathlessness. There may be exhaustion accompanying this. Children and people with epilepsy may be very likely to get convulsions at this point.
- 104.0 °F: Fainting, dehydration, weakness, vomiting, headache, breathlessness and dizziness may occur as well as profuse sweating. Starts to be life-threatening.
- 105.8 °F: (Medical emergency) Fainting, vomiting, severe headache, dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, delirium and drowsiness can occur. There may also be palpitations and breathlessness.
- 107.6 °F: Subject may turn pale or remain flushed and red. They may become comatose, be in severe delirium, vomiting, and convulsions can occur. Blood pressure may be high or low and heart rate will be very fast.
- 109.4 °F: Normally death, or there may be serious brain damage, continuous convulsions and shock. Cardio-respiratory collapse will likely occur.
- 111.2 °F or more: Almost certainly death will occur; however, people have been known to survive up to 115.7 °F.
If your heat exhaustion progresses to heat stroke, call 911 IMMEDIATELY. And continue administering first aid and attempting to lower your temperature until help arrives.
So you can see why it’s so crucial to treat heat exhaustion as soon as you start feeling symptoms. If properly tended to, you can continue having a lovely vacation without any complications. I was up and about feeling 100% within an hour after getting heat exhaustion. I hope this post helps you all stay safe and cool during your summer adventures!