Heat Exhaustion vs. Heat Stroke: How to Know the Difference

Heat exhaustion is a dangerous condition, but heat stroke can be deadly. Here's how to recognize the symptoms so you can seek urgent care.

During the summer in Texas, outdoor temperatures sometimes climb to dangerous levels. And as temperatures rise, so do the risks of heat-related illnesses and deaths. In 2023 we experienced one of the hottest summers on record, and over 300 people died of heat-related causes in Texas that year. 

Heat exhaustion, also called heat stress, means that a body is overheating. It usually happens because of a combination of physical activity, hot weather, and dehydration. The person may feel dizzy or nauseous, and might have a headache or muscle cramps. They will need to bring their body temperature back down in order to prevent heat stroke, which is a life-threatening condition.

Below we’ll talk about how to detect the symptoms of heat exhaustion so you can seek treatment before heat stroke sets in.

What Is the Difference Between Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke?

The main difference between heat stroke and heat exhaustion is body temperature. Heat exhaustion can bring body temperatures up as high as 104ºF. This fever-like reaction happens as a response to severe exhaustion and dehydration.

However, when the body’s core temperature climbs above 104ºF, heat stroke can occur. Heat stroke causes dangerous symptoms like seizures and delirium. It can cause loss of consciousness, and it can even be fatal. 

Why Is Heat Stroke So Dangerous?

Heat stroke is a medical emergency—without swift treatment, it can cause permanent disability or even death. 

During a heat stroke, the body loses its ability to produce sweat to cool down, and it is no longer able to regulate its own temperature. When this happens, the body’s core temperature can climb to dangerous levels in a matter of minutes. High body temperatures can severely damage the brain, heart, kidneys, and muscles. 

That’s why seeking treatment for heat exhaustion is so important. If you or someone in your care has symptoms of heat exhaustion, going to urgent care could save their life. Medical treatment for heat exhaustion will bring the body’s temperature back down to normal and prevent a potentially deadly situation. 

Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

Heat-related illnesses typically affect people who are working or exercising outside in hot weather. However, children under four and adults over 65 face a risk just by being outside in extremely hot conditions. If you have children or elderly people in your care, pay close attention to their physical condition during heat waves.

Signs that a person is suffering from heat exhaustion include:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Muscle Cramps
  • Fatigue
  • Heavy sweating
  • Body temperatures up to 104ºF

Symptoms of Heat Stroke

If someone is suffering from heat stroke, they will probably have symptoms of heat exhaustion first. But when body temperatures climb too high, heat stroke will begin to affect brain function and can even cause permanent brain damage. If a person has symptoms of heat stroke, they will need emergency care immediately.

Signs of a life-threatening heat stroke include: 

  • Confusion
  • Delirium
  • Aggression
  • Seizures
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Coma
  • Body temperatures over 104ºF

First Aid for Heat Exhaustion 

If someone is suffering from heat exhaustion it’s important to act quickly. 

  1. First, move them into the shade or into an air-conditioned space if possible. 
  2. Then, try to bring their body temperature down. Loosen their clothing and apply cool, wet washcloths to their forehead, back of the neck, armpits, and groin, or have them sit in a bathtub of cold water. (Do not leave them unattended in the bath.)
  3. Next, offer them sips of water or a beverage with electrolytes (sports drinks, pedialyte, coconut water) to help them rehydrate. 
  4. If their body temperature does not start to go down, bring them to the nearest urgent care facility for treatment.

Urgent Care for Heat Exhaustion in Lindale, Texas

Symptoms of heat exhaustion should always be taken seriously, especially in children and the elderly. Acting quickly could save a life, so you should never hesitate to seek medical attention. 

The doctors at Total Point Urgent Care are here when you need them most, and we’re prepared to fight the effects of dangerously hot summer weather. Located at 3405 S Main Street in Lindale, we also have many other locations throughout East-Central Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. If you are ever in need of urgent medical care, we’re ready to help. 


Photo by Hans Reniers on Unsplash used with permission under the Creative Commons license for commercial use 5/28/2024.

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