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Heat Illness Part 1: The Three Stages & What You Can Do To Help

By June 11, 2024Blog

It seems like the days get hotter sooner and that heat is staying longer. This is especially true when the days climb into 90° F range and there is high humidity. Combine this hot, humid environment with physical activity and lack of preparation and you could be at risk of heat-related illness.

Did you know that an increase in body temperature of just a few degrees could affect your mental function? An increase of a few more degrees could result in serious injury or death. Heat also can be an underlying factor in an accident, fall, or heart attack. Heat stress is a buildup of body heat. It can be generated either internally (by muscle use) or externally (by the environment), and it affects your body’s natural cooling system. Without proper precautions, this heat buildup can develop into heat exhaustion or heat stroke, a potentially fatal condition.

In part one of our two-part series, here we look at the stages of heat illness and what to do to help someone who is experiencing the symptoms of each stage.


When someone has been exposed to high heat, there are three types of heal-related illnesses they may experience: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. These usually come in stages, so it is imperative to pay attention and look for the symptoms before they progress to a life-threating level. Each stage has tell-tale signs that a person has heat illness.


  • Cramps and spasms in muscles
  • Flushed, moist skin


  • Change in mood such as irritability or confusion.
  • Cool, moist, pale skin (the skin may be red right after physical activity, and a rash may develop)
  • Dizziness and weakness or exhaustion
  • Elevated body temperature (above 100.4° F)
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Skin may or may not feel hot


  • Decreased alertness level or complete loss of consciousness
  • High body temperature (over 104° F)
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Rapid, weak pulse
  • Seizures or convulsions
  • Skin may still be moist or the victim may stop sweating and the skin may be red, hot, and dry
  • Vomiting

When working in high temperatures conditions, always use the buddy system so that you can monitor one another and spot the signs quickly.


When you see someone showing signs of heat illness, there are simple actions you can take to lend first-aid and treatment.


  • Have the person stop activity and rest in a cooler place in a comfortable position.
  • If they are fully awake and alert, have the person drink small amounts of cool water or sports drink (approximately ½ cup every 15 minutes.) Do not let them drink too quickly.
  • Gently stretch the cramped muscle, hold the stretch for about 20 seconds, and then gently massage the muscle. Repeat these steps as necessary.
  • If the victim has no other signs of heat-related illness, the person may resume activity after the cramps stop.


  • Get the person to a cooler place and have them rest in a comfortable position.
  • If they are fully awake and alert, have the person drink small amounts of cool water or sports drink (approximately ½ cup every 15 minutes.) Do not let them drink too quickly.
  • Don’t give liquids with alcohol or caffeine in them as they can make conditions worse.
  • Remove or loosen tight clothing and apply cool, wet cloths such as towels or wet sheets.
  • Seek medical care (call 9-1-1) or the local emergency number if the person refuses water, vomits, or loses consciousness.


  • Move the person to a cooler place.
  • Call 9-1-1 or the local emergency medical system (EMS) number. Heat stroke is a life-threatening situation and help is needed as soon as possible.
  • Quickly cool the body.
  • Remove the excess clothing.
  • Fan the person while wetting the skin with water.
  • If you have ice packs or cold packs, wrap them in a cloth and place them on each of the victim’s wrists and ankles, armpits, groin, or on the neck to cool the large blood vessels.
  • Do not use rubbing alcohol as it closes the skin’s pores and prevents heat loss.
  • Watch for signs of breathing problems, and keep the victim’s airway clear.
  • Keep the person lying down until medical help arrives.

Heat illness is a serious but easily preventable health risk. During the hot months, always remember to watch out for your fellow community members in need. Equipped with the knowledge of how to aid a person in distress, you just may save someone’s life.

Be sure to check out part two of this series, which deals with tips for working in high temperatures.

Heat Illness Part 2: Tips for Working in High Temperatures

Disclaimer: The information contained here is intended to be educational in nature only and is not to be construed as medical advice of any kind. Consult your physician if you have medical concerns.


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