The Difference Between Dehydration, Heat Exhaustion, and Heat Stroke

Dehydration

One of the most important things you can do to prevent heat illness is staying hydrated. Without the right amount of fluid intake, your body can’t keep its temperature at a normal, consistent level. Dehydration happens when your body lacks the proper amount of fluids and electrolytes to keep working properly.

Dehydration symptoms include:

  • Thirst
  • Less frequent urination than normal
  • Darker urine color
  • Dry skin
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness and/or fainting
  • Headache

Signs of dehydration may be slightly different for younger individuals. In young children and infants, dehydration symptoms can include a dry mouth and tongue, crying without tears, an extended period of time (around 3 hours) without a wet diaper, high fevers, and an unusual amount of sleepiness or drowsiness.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a serious condition. Heat exhaustion happens when the body loses a great deal of water and salt (which is usually caused by profuse sweating). Cases of heat exhaustion are made much worse whenever there is a high level of humidity or physical activity involved. Notably, heat exhaustion can cause any pre-existing conditions to worsen or become more apparent. It is important to know the signs of heat exhaustion, as it could take place within a very short period of time.

Heat exhaustion signs and symptoms include:

  • Muscle cramping
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Dizziness and/or fainting

Someone with heat exhaustion may have cool or even slightly wet skin, which indicates the body is still working toward cooling itself; however, the individual will likely have a fast and faint pulse and exhibit quick and shallow breathing.

Heat Stroke

Heat exhaustion left untreated may result in heat stroke. This is a life-threatening condition which can result in damage to the brain or other important organs. In some cases, heat stroke may cause multiple organ systems to fail and can ultimately cause death. During heat stroke, the body’s core temperature rises above 106° F within a time frame of 10 to 15 minutes. This rapid increase in body heat, coupled with a failing sweating mechanism, leaves the body without the ability to cool itself.

Heat stroke symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Altered mental state
  • Slurred speech
  • Unconsciousness
  • Hot, dry skin or extreme sweating
  • Seizure
  • Extremely high blood pressure

Treatment

If you find you are experiencing any of the symptoms from a condition listed above, follow these tips:

Dehydration – The only effective method of treating dehydration is to replace lost fluids and electrolytes.

Heat exhaustion – Remove all unnecessary clothing, including socks and shoes. The individual should take frequent sips of cool water, making sure not to take in too large a quantity too quickly as it may induce vomiting, which would further dehydrate.

Heat stroke – Make sure someone is with the person at all times until medical services arrive, and ensure that the person experiencing the heat stroke is moved into a cooler, shaded area. Placing cold, wet cloths or ice wrapped in cloths on the individual’s head, neck, armpits, or groin may help as well.

Know Where to Go

Getting the right care at the right time and place depends on the kind of symptoms you’re experiencing — and their severity.

For milder symptoms or if you’re not sure which kind of care you need, start with your primary care physician. Because your PCP knows your complete health history and how you respond to medication, he or she can develop the best course of treatment. If your symptoms warrant more advanced treatment, they can guide you to the right care facility.

A MinuteClinic location is a good alternative for milder symptoms if you can’t see your PCP right away.

However, for more severe symptoms, visit an urgent care center are good alternatives if you need to see a health care provider sooner than you can see your PCP, or if you need care outside of your PCPs normal office hours.

Emergency departments are best for life-threatening health issues. In the case of heat-related illnesses, go to the nearest Emergency Department or call 911 if you experience any of the following:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fainting
  • Unconventional behavior/hallucinations

When in doubt, don’t hesitate to call your PCP or the Emory HealthConnection at 404-778-7777 and speak to an Emory nurse for assistance.

We’re Here to Help

The Emory Healthcare Network partners with MinuteClinic locations and Peachtree Immediate Care urgent care locations throughout metro Atlanta and surrounding communities. Together they provide nearly 60 locations for convenient care close to home.

About Dr. Colovos

Nick Colovos, MD, received his degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1993, and completed his residency in emergency medicine at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, in 1996. His work experiences in the academic, public and private sectors of medical care have allowed him to develop a unique perspective on the business of healthcare and its delivery to patients. He currently serves as medical director for the Emory Healthcare Urgent Care and MinuteClinic Strategy and assistant clinical professor of Emergency Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Leave a Reply

By submitting comments or questions on advancingyourhealth.org, you are agreeing to the terms of our posting policy.