Surviving Heat Waves: Recognizing, Preventing, and Treating Common Heat-Related Illnesses

Published on: Jul 28, 2021fb-roundtwitter-roundemail-round
A vehicle drives through Death Valley, California where temperatures hit 120 degrees as California is gripped in another heat wave.Getty Images

This week, most people in the US (at least 30 million) will experience temperatures of over 100 F, as the fourth heatwave this summer hits the central US. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said a heat dome (aka when the atmosphere traps hot, ocean air) is to blame. The dome will stretch from the Pacific northwest and California to the Great Plains and the Great Lakes. 

The rising temperatures has led to hundreds of deaths and rising reports of heat-related illnesses. Especially among low-income families, people of color, the elderly, and farm and construction workers. And with scientists predicting more heatwaves to come, knowing the difference between common heat-related illnesses and how to treat them could be lifesaving.

Here are some common heat-related illnesses…

Heat exhaustion is what happens when your body loses a large amount of water and salt. People who work in hot conditions (like farmers or construction workers) are more likely to be diagnosed with heat exhaustion because they sweat more throughout the day. Symptoms include headache or dizziness, nausea, and extreme thirst. The CDC recommends anyone showing these signs to monitor their symptoms, and if you still don’t feel better after an hour, then you should take off any extra layers (like: socks, shoes and hats), place a cold compress on your body, drink cold water and visit an emergency room.

Heat stroke is more serious and occurs when a person’s body temperature rises quickly and won’t drop. This happens after you’ve been in the sun for a long period of time. And you’re more at risk if you’re over 65, live with a chronic illness, or have a weakened immune system. Someone at risk of heat stroke might faint or have slurred speech, confusion, seizures, and hot skin. In just 10-15 minutes, their body temperature can increase to more than 106 F. The CDC says heat stroke can cause death if medical care isn’t given right away. And suggests soaking the person’s body and clothes in cold water after calling for help.

Heat cramps mostly affect people who sweat a lot. With heat cramps, the loss of water and salt (usually from intense exercise) leads to cramps or pain in the abdomen, arms, and legs. Treatment includes stopping physical activity, hydrating, and waiting for cramps to stop before resuming any movement. 

Heat rash shows up as a cluster of small, red pimples, blisters, or deep lumps on the neck, chest, elbow or groin (aka hip area between stomach and thighs). It happens when blocked pores trap dirt and sweat under the skin. If you get a heat rash, baby powder can help, but not lotion. And remember to keep the area dry.

Sunburns occur when the body is exposed to UV radiation for long periods of time without protection, either from the sun or artificial light (looking at you, tanning beds). You’ll know you have one if parts of your skin turn red, burn, and are painful to touch. For relief, stay out of the sun until your sunburn heals. And try putting a chilled cloth or lotion on the area. Remember to use broad spectrum sunscreen with at least 30 SPF next time you go out, and apply every two hours – or more if you’re swimming and sweating.   


The US is seeing record breaking temperatures and deaths in parts of the nation that were once thought to be regions with milder climates. These severe temperatures are another consequence of human-caused climate change. And it’s leaving many Americans facing greater challenges with maintaining their health, homes, and livelihoods.

Skimm'd by Sana Dadani and Kamini Ramdeen

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