General Health Jul 7, 2023

Beat the Summer Heat

Understanding and preventing heat-related illnesses

Reviewed by: Vivian Pugh, MD
Written by: Lauren Schneider

Paddleboarders with trees on either side of the waterway.

Texas summers are known for their high temperatures, ample sunshine, and limited rainfall. This natural climate predisposes the area to heat-related challenges. Extended periods of hot weather, often accompanied by high levels of humidity, can further exacerbate the already hot conditions, increasing the risk of heatwaves and heat-related illnesses. While triple-digit forecasts are a common occurrence for Central Texans, heat-related illness can still affect those accustomed to the rising temperatures.

“No one is immune to heat-related illness,” says Vivian Pugh, MD, a board-certified internal medicine specialist in UT Health Austin’s Primary Care Clinic. “People who live in warm climates may not perceive high temperatures to be a concern, but our bodies are all structured the same way and respond the same way to heat.”

While record-breaking temperatures may seem to be the new normal, it’s important to take necessary precautions to keep yourself and your loved ones safe.

Understand Your Body’s Cooling System

“Imagine holding an ice cube in your hand,” says Dr. Pugh. “While you may assume that the cold temperature is moving from the ice cube to cool down your skin, heat is actually escaping your body and warming the ice cube. Heat travels from hotter to colder matter, bringing the two temperatures closer to equilibrium.”

Most of the time, your body relies on this principle to help maintain the 98.6 °F temperature required for proper organ functioning by radiating body heat into the relatively cooler air. “The body is like a cell phone that does not work when it is overheated,” warns Dr. Pugh “When temperatures climb above 98.6 °F, we lose one mechanism for regulating body temperature and have to rely on sweat to cool our body.”

Excessive sweating can lead to a serious drop in fluids and electrolytes. The body responds to this loss by constricting blood vessels to prioritize circulation to vital organs, such as the heart and the brain. Organs affected by this decrease in circulation, such as the gut and kidney, lose the ability to function properly.

“If your body loses too much water and electrolytes through sweat, then you start having internal organ dysfunction. These issues start with the gut, which is why people with heat-related illness experience nausea and vomiting,” explains Dr. Pugh. “Extreme heat-related illness leads to internal organ failure, which can be deadly.”

Headed outdoors this summer? Check out our sun safety guide.

<br>Recognize Stages of Heat-Related Illness

The effects of heat on the body are gradual and progressive. By addressing heat-related illness at the earliest stages, you can avoid more severe consequences.

Heat Cramps

Typically the mildest form of heat illness, heat cramps are painful muscle contractions or spasms that occur during or after intense physical activity in high temperatures. They are often associated with dehydration and an imbalance of electrolytes, such as sodium, potassium, and calcium. Heat cramps commonly affect the muscles used during exercise, such as the calves, thighs, and abdominal muscles. The cramps may be brief or last for several minutes, and individuals may also experience excessive sweating and fatigue.

Signs of heat cramps may include:

  • Muscle cramping and spasms
  • Nausea

“Heat cramps are a warning sign to remove yourself from the heat,” notes Dr. Pugh. “Ignoring heat cramps and continuing to expose yourself to heat can potentially lead to more severe heat-related illnesses.”

If you are experiencing heat cramps:

  • Rest in a shaded area, ideally with a fan or other source of cool air
  • Hydrate
  • Replenish electrolytes

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body becomes overwhelmed by excessive heat and is unable to cool itself effectively. With heat exhaustion, your body’s core temperature may rise to between 100 and 102 °F. It is typically a result of prolonged exposure to high temperatures and inadequate hydration.

Signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Cold, damp skin
  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramping
  • Nausea
  • Rapid pulse
  • Weakness

“While heat exhaustion is marked by more serious symptoms, people with heat exhaustion are still able to sweat,” says Dr. Pugh. “Most people recover from heat exhaustion with adequate attention.”

If you are showing signs of heat exhaustion:

  • Rest in a shaded area, ideally with a fan or other source of cool air
  • Take sips of water
  • Put ice packs on the groin or armpits to cool the body quickly

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is severe and potentially life-threatening. It occurs when the body’s core temperature rises to a dangerous level, usually above 104 °F, due to prolonged exposure to high temperatures and excessive heat. Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention.

Signs of heat stroke include:

  • Confusion
  • Dizziness
  • High body temperature
  • Hot skin
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Nausea
  • Rapid pulse

“Heat stroke is an emergency, and it is crucial that people with this serious heat-related illness make it to the hospital on time,” stresses Dr. Pugh. “Anyone who experiences nausea or cramping that doesn’t subside after drinking water and being out of the heat for 10-20 minutes should be proactive by dialing 9-1-1 or visiting the nearest emergency room. Even if their condition has not progressed to heat stroke, immediate medical attention can prevent the most dangerous effects of heat-related illness.”

If you are showing signs of heat exhaustion:

  • Dial 9-1-1 or visit the nearest emergency room

Prevent Heat-Related Illness

By following preventive measures, you can significantly reduce the risk of heat-related illness and its potentially harmful effects.

Stay safe in the heat by:

  • Avoiding the outdoors during peak sun hours (noon to mid-afternoon)
  • Taking frequent breaks (ideally every 20-30 minutes) in a shaded area that is at least 10° cooler than direct sunlight
  • Drinking plenty of fluids
  • Replenishing electrolytes
  • Paying attention to your body and resting if you feel dizzy or have cramps

Learn more about heat safety for outdoor workers.

<br>Look Out for the Most Vulnerable

While any one can develop heat-related illness, certain health conditions and medications are associated with a greater incidence of heat-related illness.

People may be at greater risk for heat-related illness if they:

  • Have been diagnosed with coronary or cardiovascular disease
  • Have a history of stroke
  • Take diuretic medications for conditions such as high blood pressure

Because heat-related illness is caused by a disruption to the body’s natural temperature regulation process, those who regulate internal temperature differently, such as infants, toddlers, and older adults, are also at greater risk. “Heat-related illness escalates more quickly for people in these age ranges, so they should avoid being outdoors when temperatures are above their internal body temperature,” says Dr. Pugh.

Young children who are not able to communicate their discomfort require extra attention in the heat. “Once children are old enough to tell you when they are not feeling well, educate them on the risk of heat-related illness,” advises Dr. Pugh. “Then, they can partake in more outdoor activities as long as they have access to shade and water and know when to ask for help.”

Explore Heat Safety Resources

“So far, the temperatures in Central Texas have been especially high this summer,” notes Dr. Pugh. “Familiarize yourself with community resources and other heat safety information to help prepare for the scorching days ahead.”

Cooling Centers

Cooling centers are designated locations or facilities where individuals can seek refuge from excessive heat and find relief from hot weather conditions. Recreation centers, community centers, and public libraries often act as cooling centers during regular hours of operation.

To locate a cooling center nearest to you, visit the Travis County Office of Emergency Management.

<br>Heat-Related Illness Information and Resources

Heat-related illnesses and death are largely preventable with proper planning, education, and action.

General Information

Information for Families

Information for Older Adults

Information for Pet Owners

About UT Health Austin

UT Health Austin is the clinical practice of the Dell Medical School at The University of Texas at Austin. We collaborate with our colleagues at the Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin to utilize the latest research, diagnostic, and treatment techniques, allowing us to provide patients with an unparalleled quality of care. Our experienced healthcare professionals deliver personalized, whole-person care of uncompromising quality and treat each patient as an individual with unique circumstances, priorities, and beliefs. Working directly with you, your care team creates an individualized care plan to help you reach the goals that matter most to you — in the care room and beyond. For more information, call us at 1-833-UT-CARES or request an appointment here.