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July 22, 2014

Responding to Heat Illnesses

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Last month, we talked about how to protect yourself and your employees when working in hot, sunny conditions. Sometimes, even with all the right precautions, the heat gets us anyway.

Do you know what to do in the event of heat exhaustion, heat cramps, or heat stroke?

Heat exhaustion
Heat-related problems occur when the body’s normal temperature-reducing mechanisms get overwhelmed, especially during vigorous physical activity, and become inefficient or stop working.

An active body creates heat. When it is exposed to hot, humid temperatures, sweating occurs to evaporate and cool the body. Heat exhaustion can develop from the combination of an increased internal temperature and the excessive loss of fluids to the environment, typically from sweating.

Signs include heavy sweating and pale, cool skin. The person may become nauseated and vomit, and may complain of a headache or dizziness, and feel weak.

Although it may not appear serious, treat suspected heat exhaustion without delay. Without immediate treatment it could progress to heat stroke, a life-threatening condition.

Stop the person from activity and move them to a cooler place. Loosen or remove excess clothing. Have the person lie down and raise the legs 6–12 inches. Spray water or apply cool, wet cloths to head and torso. Use a fan to speed evaporation.

Encourage the person to drink cool fluids, preferably a sports drink with carbohydrates and electrolytes. If the person does not improve or seems to get worse, activate EMS.

Heat Cramps
Heat cramps are uncontrollable muscle spasms that can affect the calves, arms, abdominal muscles, and back. They can occur suddenly and be very painful.

Manage cramps by stopping activity, moving the person to a cooler location, and having them drink water or a sports drink. Stretching and direct pressure to the cramping muscle may help. Delay further activity until the cramping has been resolved.


Heat Stroke
Heat stroke is a true life-threatening medical emergency. It can occur due to overexertion in a hot, humid environment or as the result of a breakdown in the body’s ability to shed heat.

If body temperature rises significantly, it can quickly cause permanent damage to sensitive organs, including the brain and spinal cord. In addition to the signs of heat exhaustion, a person with heat stroke will have an altered mental status.

The skin can become red, very warm, or even hot, and be completely dry. Heavy sweating could be present, especially when exertion is the cause. The person may collapse and have a seizure.

Activate EMS immediately. Begin aggressive cooling with the resources available to you. Spray or pour water on the victim and fan them. Apply ice packs to the person’s neck, groin, and armpits. Cover the victim with a wet sheet and continue to fan.

The best method, when possible, is to immerse the person in cool water up to the neck.

If the person is unresponsive, place them on their side in the recovery position to protect the airway. Do not force the person to drink fluids. Never give an unresponsive person anything by mouth.

Provide continuous cooling until EMS arrives. With early recognition and immediate cooling, the survival rate approaches 90%.

Want more emergency care know-how? There’s an ASHI or MEDIC First Aid class waiting near you!

Find A Class, ASHI, MEDIC First Aid  

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