Public Health

Am I More At-Risk for Heat Exhaustion Due to Climate Change?

Erica Kahn
Erica Kahn23 Aug 2022

Population exposure to heat is increasing and will continue to due to climate change. As a result, the increased frequency, duration, and magnitude of extreme temperature events like heatwaves increase the risk of heat-related illnesses, including heat exhaustion. The effects of heat exhaustion are preventable largely through public health actions, yet there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of heat exhaustion.  

Impact of Climate Change on Heat-Related Illnesses

Climate change is causing more heat waves in the United States. In the 1960s, the U.S. experienced about 2 heatwaves per year and by the 2010s, experienced about 6 per year. Heat-related illnesses and heat exhaustion are expected to increase due to the climate crisis.

Heat-related deaths in the U.S. are difficult to measure as heat is sometimes considered an underlying and contributing cause rather than the predominant cause. According to the EPA, there are approximately 1,300 deaths per year in the U.S. due to extreme heat. Heat-related illness is also the leading cause of death and disability among U.S. high school athletes.  

Increased Prevalence of ‘Heat Days’

Power shortages often accompany heat waves, disrupting health facilities, transport, and water systems. These “heat days” also result in work places and schools closing due to the heat and the additional problems it brings. A recent Washington Post article details how schools across America are changing their schedules or closing due to the increase in heat waves.

Climate change has caused regions from the Northeast to the Pacific Northwest of the United States to experience extreme heat that was once rare in August and September. Urban areas are especially at risk as they often consist of old buildings that do not have air conditioning, have a lack of green space, and lack shade.     

Heat Exhaustion and Underlying Diseases

Increased exposure to heat not only increases your risk of heat-related illnesses, but it also worsens existing conditions. In particular, heat can be attributed to indirectly exacerbating respiratory diseases, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and renal disease. 

What is Heat Exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion occurs when your body overheats and cannot cool itself down. It is often caused by exercise or physical activity, particularly in hot and humid weather. 

Under normal conditions, sweat helps cool your body temperature when it gets evaporated, however, when the humidity is high, sweat does not evaporate as quickly, preventing the body from cooling down faster. Losing bodily fluids through sweat can lead to dehydration, which can also lead to heat exhaustion.  

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Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Heavy sweating
  • Tiredness or weakness
  • Cold, pale, and clammy skin
  • Fast, weak pulse
  • Fainting

If you are experiencing these symptoms, be sure to remove yourself from the heat and go to a cool place and rehydrate with water and electrolytes.

Populations Most At-Risk for Heat Exhaustion 

Certain populations are more susceptible to the impact of heat exhaustion than others. This includes: 

Gender and race can also play an important role in determining heat exposure. In the US, a study of 108 urban areas across the country found that formerly redlined neighborhoods of nearly each city studied were hotter than non-redlined neighborhoods, some by nearly 13 degrees Farenheit, as these place have more concrete and lack green spaces. These formerly redlined neighborhoods are disproportionately communities of color. 

Communities or cities that replace natural vegetation with dense concentrations of pavement, buildings, and other surfaces that absorb heat are referred to as “urban heat islands”. Urban heat islands have increased air pollution levels, and heat-related illness and mortality. Downtown New York City is an example of an urban heat island. 

Ways to Prevent Heat Exhaustion

To prevent heat exhaustion, stay cool, hydrated, and informed; wear sunscreen, and wear light clothing. Avoid hot and heavy meals as they add heat to your body. Heat exhaustion can occur quickly and anywhere with some experiencing heat exhaustion gardening, in a car without air conditioning, during recess, or on their way out of an airport with heavy luggage. If you have signs of heat exhaustion remove yourself immediately from the heat and to a cooler place.

Heat Exhaustion Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) 

Below we answer some questions regarding heat exhaustion and what to do if you or someone you’re with is experiencing a heat-related illness.

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What are other heat-related illnesses?

Other heat-related illnesses include:

  • Heat Stroke: Has similar symptoms to heat exhaustion but is more severe. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and is a form of hyperthermia as body temperature exceeds 103 degrees Fahrenheit.   
  • Heat Cramps: Are caused by heavy exercise and result in excessive sweating and muscle pain. Drink water and electrolytes, and wait for cramps to subside in a cool place. Consider seeking medical help if you’re on a low-sodium diet, cramps last longer than one hour, or if you have a heart problem. 
  • Heat Rash: Clusters of small red blisters that resemble pimples on the skin (mostly on the neck, chest, groin, and elbow creases). Soothe the rash by applying baby powder and staying out of the sun. 
  • Sunburn: Can be avoided by applying sunscreen. Sunburn turns the skin red and warm and sometimes blisters

What should I do if I have signs of heat exhaustion?

If you are experiencing symptoms of heat exhaustion you should immediately remove yourself from the heat and allow yourself to cool down. Move to a cool place, loosen your clothes, take a bath, rest, and sip water to treat heat exhaustion. 

When should I see a doctor about heat exhaustion?

If your symptoms last longer than one hour, get worse, and if you are throwing up you should get medical help right away. If untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke which can be life-threatening. 

What is the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke?

Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke if left untreated, however, it is not a medical emergency like heat stroke is. Symptoms of heat stroke include hot, red, dry, or damp skin, severe vomiting or diarrhea, a fast heart rate, unconsciousness, and a high body temperature. 

If you are with someone who is having a heat stroke, call 911 and help lower the person’s temperature with cool clothes and take them to a cool place. Do not give the person anything to drink as they may not be alert enough and could choke.  

Bottom Line 

 In the U.S. 92 all-time record high temperatures have been set through July 16th. Take care of yourself and your loved ones this summer by preparing for the heat. Climate change is predicted to cause more heat-related illnesses in the future and heat can exacerbate underlying diseases. If you are experiencing heat exhaustion, try to cool down but if symptoms persist or worsen, seek medical attention.

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Erica Kahn

Erica graduated from Emory University in Atlanta with a BS in environmental science and a minor in English and is on track to graduate with her Master's in Public Health. She is passionate about health equity, women's health, and how the environment impacts public health.