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Heat exhaustion vs heat stroke: Know the difference

August 11, 2023

With this dangerous heat wave forecasted to keep smothering the southern U.S. and Florida the next several weeks, it is important to know the key differences between heat-related illnesses.

The combination of heat and humidity will result in dangerously high “feels like” temperatures to continue hitting the triple digits. These conditions could prompt significant health risks if precautions are not taken.

Heat-related illnesses such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat strokes can arise when the body's capacity to regulate its temperature is tested or when there's an inadequate supply of fluids or salt in the body due to strenuous physical activity or dehydration.

Late summer/fall athletes and students returning to school are at an elevated risk due to increased heat exposure. Young children and some teenagers are more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses because their bodies are less adaptable to warmer temperatures and warm up faster than adults. Older adults, people with certain medical conditions, and pregnant women are also at higher risk.

Knowing the difference between these symptoms can prevent worsening conditions—excessive heat stands as the leading contributor to weather-related fatalities, according to NOAA.

Heat cramps are often the first sign of a heat-related illness and can lead to heat exhaustion or stroke. Muscle cramps, spasms and heavy sweating are all related to heat cramps.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion may develop over time or start rapidly and include dizziness, thirst, heavy sweating, nausea and weakness. Without prompt treatment, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke.

A heat stroke can be fatal or cause permanent disability if emergency treatment is not given. Confusion, dizziness, unconsciousness and a rapid pulse are symptoms that can be found alongside a heat stroke.

For tips on how to treat heat-related illnesses and more information on heat safety, visit www.weather.gov/safety/heat

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Sources include nearest National Weather Service office, National Hurricane Center, and the Florida Public Radio Emergency Network (@FloridaStorms).
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