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3 stages of serious heat injury to watch for in scorching summer temps

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Strenuous exercise in extreme temperatures can increase the risk of heat-related illness. Copyright Getty Images
Copyright Getty Images
By John Torres, M.D. and Shamard Charles M.D. with TODAY Health and Wellness
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Watch for the signs of heat illness in scorching summer temperatures.


In the dog days of summer when temperatures soar, heat injury can happen to anyone.

Especially for seniors, small children, athletes and people who work or stay active outdoors, it's critical to keep cool.

Feeling dizzy or sluggish on a scorching day could be the body signaling a more serious condition.

Don't ignore these three stages of heat-related illnesses:

1. Heat cramps

The first stage is heat cramps. Severe muscle spasms occur as a result of salt and water loss following exertion, most often in the hands, calves, and feet. Muscle spasms can spontaneously stop on their own, but lingering symptoms of soreness often persist for 24-48 hours.

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People working outdoors in extreme heat should be aware of the signs of heat-related injury.Getty Images

2. Heat exhaustion

Next is actual heat exhaustion. More than just feeling fatigued, heat exhaustion is a serious condition caused by exposure to high temperatures, humidity, and strenuous physical activity.

Symptoms include:

  • headache
  • low-grade fever
  • nausea or vomiting
  • increased thirst
  • generalized weakness
  • muscle ache or cramping

Feeling agitated and anxious are common and some people may even faint as blood pressure tries to compensate, but ultimately lowers. This deregulation by heat exhaustion can lead to stoke or other a life threatening conditions, if left untreated.

3. Heat stroke

The final stage is heat stroke and is considered a medical emergency — get help fast. This potentially fatal condition is a result of prolonged heat exposure or physical exertion. A heat stroke is characterized when the body's core temperature reaches 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Symptoms include:

  • confusion due to lack of blood flow to the brain
  • reddened dry skin
  • lack of sweat
  • organ failure
  • convulsions or seizure.

Fortunately, these conditions are preventable with some simple preparation and paying close attention to your body. Some safety tips include:

  • Stay hydrated — drink a cup of water every hour.
  • Avoid alcohol use — alcohol and even caffeine can actually dehydrate the body.
  • Monitor the temperature — check the outside temp throughout the day.
  • Limit strenuous activity, particularly during peak hours of the day 11 a.m. - 4 p.m.

Other ways to monitor how your body is doing when in the heat is to check the color of your urine — dark yellow urine means time to hydrate. One would expect to sweat a lot if out in the sun, but if there is decreased sweating it's another sign of dehydration so limit any strenuous activity.

If someone else shows danger signs of heat exhaustion:

  • Move the person out of the heat and into a cool environment.
  • Place cold water directly on the person.
  • Give cool water or a non-alcoholic, non-caffeinated beverage.
  • Remove tight or heavy clothing.
  • Take the person's temperature if a thermometer is available.
  • Continue monitoring the person and call for emergency assistance if there's no improvement.
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