The Heat Is On: Heat Illness Symptoms, Prevention And Treatment

By Jessica Poole, Certified Athletic Trainer

It’s almost time for life to get a bit warmer, like blazing and humid (I actually love it!). This week we are going to go to bed with thirty degree temps and waking up to nearly eighty degree days. It seems Georgia goes from winter to summer in a flash.

While I can’t wait for summer to arrive, I do not look forward to hard workouts in the heat.

Whether it’s a long run or a long day cutting grass, we need to be aware of how the heat takes a toll on our bodies. The best way to beat the heat and the illnesses that come with it is prevention.

My focus for the next couple of blog posts are just that: prevention of heat illnesses. Hopefully we can all prepare and ward off some thirsty, dizzy and overwhelming workouts. We want to enjoy the heat, not take a beating.

So, what are some common heat illnesses and how do we go about preventing them? Let’s start with how we lose and gain heat.

Take a trip down memory lane. Come on, dust off those cobwebs collecting on the ol’ elementary school files. Remember discussing heat? How we absorb heat, generate heat, lose heat? Remember evaporation? Okay. Good. Keep in mind that we take in heat from our surroundings, generate our own and have molecules close to our body that allow for either the retention or movement of heat away from our bodies. Not only are we combating the heat we generate but also heat from our surroundings.

With that said, let’s move into the types of illnesses we may encounter when it gets, as my four-year-old tells me, “stinkin’ hot”.

Heat cramps: Continual cramping of muscles after a long or physically taxing workout or physical activities. Usually occurs in the feet, calves, quads, hamstrings and abdominals. It is thought that dehydration, electrolyte (sodium, potassium, calcium) imbalances, and/or muscle fatigue cause the cramping. Due to excessive sweating in hot conditions, we become dehydrated or replenish with water only to disrupt our electrolyte balance. We can prevent heat cramps by proper hydration with both water and sports drinks and eating a well balanced diet. (I will be discussing proper hydration and diet to prevent dehydration in a future post so stay tuned.)

Heat syncope: Dizziness or blacking out due to dehydration, vascular dilation, pooling of blood in extremities, poor blood return, or poor cardiac output. Common in the first five days of adjusting to hot temperatures, in those with heart conditions or people taking diuretics. We can prevent heat syncope by proper diet and hydration, slowly adjusting to hot temperatures, decreasing intensity in hot/humid conditions and proper cool down sessions following a hard workout to return blood to heart and lower heart rate slowly.

Heat exhaustion: Condition that limits our ability to continue exercise or work due to excessive sweating, nausea, dizziness, weakness, nausea, diarrhea, hyperventilation and/or headache. Usually there is a decreased urine output, as dehydration is the main culprit of exhaustion. One may faint, become pale, become fatigued and generally feel ill. Body core temperature, when assessed, is usually climbing towards 104°F. All or only a few symptoms may occur. Stop exercise immediately and move to a cool place. Consumption of cold, clear fluids with electrolytes is best. If nauseated, then medical care may be necessary to replenish fluids intravenously. This is a serious situation that can turn into a medical emergency quickly. Seek medical attention if any of these symptoms linger after administering fluids or with any fainting.

Heat stroke: LIFE THREATENING! The body has lost its ability to cool itself down. When core temperature is assessed rectally, body temperature is over 104°F. Individuals may experience all or any of these symptoms: dehydration, rapid pulse, hyperventilation, confusion or altered mental status, vomiting, diarrhea, seizures, swelling of extremities. The longer the body temperature is elevated, the greater the risk of death. Seek medical attention immediately if you are suffering from heat stroke. Try to cool the body as quickly as possible while waiting on paramedics. Ice on head and neck, cold fluids if conscious, cold environment, etc. Heat stroke will not reverse on its own, medical intervention is necessary.

Take heart, even though it’s hot and humid, these serious illnesses can be prevented. They are very easy to prevent or keep at a less serious level with proper hydration, workout adjustments and attire. Stay tuned for my next post where I will discuss prevention in more detail. 

Enjoy the spring and prepare for summer. 

Stay healthy my friends.


Binkley, H. M., Beckett, J., Casa, D. J., Kleiner, D. M., & Plummer, P. E. (2002). National Athletic Trainers' Association position statement: exertional heat illnesses. Journal of Athletic Training, 37(3), 329.


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