A man wearing a black t-shirt is pouring water from a bottle over his head while standing in the hot sun.

When summer temperatures rise, your body has a natural cooling system in place to combat effects of prolonged heat exposure. However, when they climb into the extreme, this may not be enough. Heat-related illnesses cause approximately 1,220 deaths in the United States each year.  

Heat exhaustion and heatstroke happen when your body is unable to cool itself through normal processes like sweating. “Both heat exhaustion and heatstroke can develop quickly,” says Gordon Theisz, MD, FAAFP, Assistant Professor of Family and Community Medicine. “Because heat exhaustion often occurs before heatstroke, a person or an observer has a chance to intervene and prevent heatstroke.”

Ways to stay safe during extreme heat:

  • Stay hydrated. Plain water is best.
  • Wear loose, light-colored clothing made of thin fabric.
  • Stay indoors during peak temperatures, generally in late afternoon 2 p.m. – 6 p.m.
  • If unable to move indoors, seek areas of shade and areas with moving air such as a fan.
  • Be mindful of medications. Beta blockers, antihistamines, blood pressure medicine, benzodiazepines (Xanax, Valium) and more may contribute to heat-related illnesses.
  • Find a community cooling center. Check with your local news or call 211 for assistance.

People who work or train outdoors such as athletes, laborers, and members of the military, as well as older adults, young children and people with chronic illnesses are most vulnerable to extreme heat and will need to take special care.

Signs of heat exhaustion:

  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • nausea
  • changes in vision
  • hot, flushed skin
  • muscle aches

How to treat heat exhaustion:

  • Cool down immediately. Move indoors or into a shaded area.
  • Wet or mist skin with cool water.
  • Drink water or sports drinks. Do not drink anything with caffeine or alcohol.
  • Rest

While heat exhaustion may be treated without medical intervention. "If the person is not recovering from symptoms such as muscle aches, headache, nausea or fatigue with standard measures such as hydration, moving to a cooler space, encouraging cooling through evaporation (such as a cool breeze from a fan or cold compresses)," says Dr. Theisz, "then it is really important to get evaluated. Heatstroke is a serious life-threatening condition.” 

Signs of heatstroke:

  • hot, dry skin
  • irritability
  • confusion
  • slurred speech or clumsy movements
  • elevated body temperature/fever

What to do if you suspect a heatstroke:

  • Call 911. This is a medical emergency.
  • Cool the patient immediately. Move them into air conditioning or into a shaded area.
  • Wet or mist their skin with cool water.
  • Place ice packs around the head, armpits and groin.
  • Do not give water to someone experiencing mental status changes as symptoms of heatstroke.

For more information on staying safe in the summer and to make an appointment with one of our providers at EVMS Family and Community Medicine, contact Ghent Family Medicine at 757.446.5955 or Portsmouth Family Medicine at 757.397.6344.