Heat exhaustion occurs when your body gets too hot. The hypothalamus is the part of the brain that controls thirst and hunger. It also controls the body's core temperature. Normally, the body cools itself by sweating. When you are exposed to high temperatures for a long time (for example, when working outdoors in the summer) and don't replace the fluids you lose, the body systems that regulate temperature become overwhelmed. As a result, your body produces more heat than it can release. Heat exhaustion requires immediate attention because it can progress to heat stroke, a life-threatening illness.
People with heat exhaustion may experience the following signs and symptoms:
Heat exhaustion may occur when the core body temperature raises to below 104°F (40°C). If the core body temperature goes above 104°F (40°C), or if coma or seizure occurs, the patient may have heat stroke.
If left untreated, heat stroke can quickly lead to heart attack and death.
Heat exhaustion occurs most often when you are exposed to high temperatures and become dehydrated, usually from not drinking enough fluids. It can also happen when you replace large volumes of sweat with fluids that do not contain enough salt.
Heat stroke is classified as:
The following factors increase the risk of developing heat exhaustion:
If you have symptoms of heat exhaustion, you should see a doctor immediately. The doctor will perform a physical examination, check your blood pressure, pulse, and temperature, and assess how dehydrated you are. The doctor may also request lab tests of blood and urine samples.
If you are working or exercising in the heat, drink plenty of fluids before, during, and after the activity. Take the following precautions to prevent heat exhaustion:
The primary treatment for heat exhaustion is to rest in a shady spot or, better, an air-conditioned room, and to drink cool (not icy) fluids. You can lower core body temperature by immersing yourself in cold water or spraying yourself with cold water and fanning. Water is usually enough to reverse dehydration, but you can also drink a sports drink that contains electrolytes.
Your health care provider may recommend an oral or intravenous saline electrolyte solution.
Providers may recommend drinking fluids that contain electrolytes (see Prevention section). Endurance athletes may want to take mineral supplements, including:
Foods high in these nutrients include dark leafy greens, nuts, seeds, whole grains, sea vegetables, blackstrap molasses, and bananas. Please note: Taking any of these minerals in large amounts may cause unwanted symptoms and/or mineral imbalances. Consult your doctor to determine the correct amount of mineral supplementation to meet your needs.
The most important treatment for heat exhaustion is replacing lost fluids by drinking cool water or a sports drink, and getting into a cooler environment. If you have symptoms of heat exhaustion you should talk to your provider before taking anything. Although no studies have examined using herbs to treat heat exhaustion specifically, the following herbs are sometimes used by people with fever:
Although few studies have examined the effectiveness of specific homeopathic therapies, homeopaths may consider the following remedies for the treatment of fever:
If you avoid heat stroke, recovering from heat exhaustion usually takes 24 to 48 hours. Depending on the severity of heat exhaustion, you may be hospitalized so doctors can monitor your fluid and electrolyte levels to avoid complications. Delayed access to cooling is the leading cause of complications among people with heat stroke. Heat exhaustion can exacerbate a wide range of medical conditions.
Your health care provider will check the fluid levels in your body to see if electrolyte replacement should be continued.
Bergquist PE. Therapeutic homeopathy. In: Rakel D, ed. Integrative Medicine. 4rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2018:chap 115.
Cheshire WP Jr. Thermoregulatory disorders and illness related to heat and cold stress. Auton Neurosci. 2016;196:91-104. PMID: 26794588 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26794588.
Ferri FF. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In: Ferri FF, ed. Ferri's Clinical Advisor 2018. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2018:561-562.e1
Grove AJ, Gomez J. Environmental illness. In: Miller MD, Thompson SR, eds. DeLee and Drez's Orthopaedic Sports Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2015:chap 25.
Kravechenko J, Abernathy AP, Fawzy M, Lyerly HK. Minimization of heatwave morbidity and mortality. Am J Prev Med. 2013;44(3):274-282. PMID: 23415125 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23415125.
Masur LC. Mineral status evaluation. In: Pizzorno JE, Murray MT, eds. Textbook of Natural Medicine. 4th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Churchill Livingstone; 2013:chap 24.
Platt M, Vicario S. Heat illness. In: Marx JA, ed. Rosen's Emergency Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier Saunders; 2014:chap 141.
Sakwa MN, O'Connor FG. Disorders due to heat and cold. In: Lee G, Schafer AI, ed. Goldman-Cecil Medicine. 25th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Elsevier; 2016:chap 109.
Yamazaki F. Effectiveness of exercise heat acclimation for preventing heat illness in the workplace. J UOEH. 2013;35(3):183-192. PMID: 24077586 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24077586.
Reviewed By: Steven D. Ehrlich, NMD, Solutions Acupuncture, a private practice specializing in complementary and alternative medicine, Phoenix, AZ. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- 2022 A.D.A.M., a business unit of Ebix, Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.