eSafety’s Heat-Related Illness series was developed to create a better understanding of the different types of heat-related illnesses. These illnesses are prevalent in the workplace year-round, and can affect anyone working in a warm, humid environment both indoors and outdoors. This series will cover topics that include the different types of heat-related illnesses, signs and symptoms of these illnesses, and workplace prevention methods.
As summer weather continues to heat up, the risk of heat-related illnesses increases. If you are working in hot, humid conditions, it’s always a good idea to have a full water bottle handy, and to take regular breaks to ensure you don’t become overheated. Another good way to prepare for that increased risk is to understand the 6 different types of heat-related illnesses, so you can recognize any symptoms and respond appropriately.
Here is a look at the definitions and descriptions of each of the 6 types of heat-related illnesses, so you can learn what signs to look for, and what actions to take in the event that you or someone else starts exhibiting symptoms of a heat-related illness.
#1 Heat Rash
Heat rash is the least serious heat-related illness. It’s usually more uncomfortable than it is dangerous. Heat rash appears on the body in small red blisters, usually on the chest and neck, in the groin area, and in elbow creases. This heat-related illness occurs when sweat is unable to evaporate from the surface of the skin, which can happen when you’ve spent long hours working and sweating in hot conditions.
Heat rash is not a dangerous heat-related illness, but it is a good idea to hydrate and move out of the hot weather if you’re experiencing heat rash symptoms. To ease discomfort associated with the rash, you can take a cool shower and apply talcum powder to any affected areas.
#2 Heat Cramps
Heat cramps are more serious than heat rash. These cramps are muscle spasms that occur when your body lacks both salt and water. It’s possible to experience heat cramps even if you’ve been hydrating, because you may not be replenishing the salt levels in your body that deplete when you sweat.
Heat cramps most commonly occur in the arms, legs, or abdomen. The best way to combat heat cramps is to:
- Move out of the heat if possible
- Drink cool water or an electrolyte-replenishing drink every 15 to 20 minutes
- Apply a cool wet compress to the cramping area
If your cramps do not begin to subside within an hour of these treatments, seek medical attention.
#3 Heat Syncope
Heat syncope is a heat-related illness that results in an individual’s collapse or loss of consciousness due to heat exposure. Unlike other heat-related illnesses, individuals experiencing heat syncope will not experience an increase or body temperature or a cessation of sweating.
If you are exposed to a warm, humid environment and are experiencing light-headedness from standing up quickly, or from prolonged standing, know that these are symptoms of heat syncope. Fainting for short durations and dizziness are also symptoms of heat syncope.
Those experiencing heat syncope or heat syncope symptoms should sit down in a cool area, and slowly drink water or an electrolyte drink.
#4 Heat Exhaustion
Of all the heat-related illnesses, heat exhaustion is the most common. It’s also a serious type of heat-related illness that should be addressed as quickly as possible. Heat exhaustion is caused by the body’s extreme depletion of water and salt.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion are often similar to those of the flu — headache, weakness, fatigue and nausea — though heat exhaustion symptoms can also include an elevated body temperature, excessive sweating, and decreased urine output. See Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke for more information.
If not treated, this level of dehydration can lead to heat stroke, which is the most serious heat-related illness. If you notice someone experiencing heat exhaustion:
- Move them into a cool, less humid area
- Have the person lie down and apply cool wet compress directly to the head, neck, and face
- Fan air towards the body to help lower body temperature
- Loosen clothing and remove any unnecessary clothing, like shoes and socks
- Drink water or a drink with electrolytes frequently
With this treatment, the person should begin to feel better in about a half hour. They should be taken to a clinic or emergency room for medical evaluation and/or additional treatment.
#5 Heat Stroke
As mentioned above, heat stroke is the most serious type of heat-related illness. Heat stroke can be fatal if not treated. Heat stroke happens when the body loses its ability to regulate temperature, and overheats. There are two types of heat stroke:
Classic Heat Stroke
Characterized by a cessation of sweating, classic heat stroke is also accompanied by symptoms like a high fever, confusion, unconsciousness, and/or convulsions. If your body stops sweating, classic heat stroke is imminent.
Exertional Heat Stroke
Exertional heat stroke is typically caused by a combination of heavy physical activity or exertion and heat exposure. Exertional heat stroke looks just like classic heat stroke, except that someone affected by exertional heat stroke will continue to sweat.
Whether exertional or classic, heat stroke is the most serious type of heat-related illness. Because the body cannot regulate temperature, the affected individual’s body temperature can soar in just minutes to 106° F. This extreme temperature can cause permanent brain damage and even lead to death if it is not brought down.
If you notice someone experiencing heat stroke, call medical first responders immediately. While waiting for medical care providers to arrive:
- Move the person to a shaded, cool area
- Remove or loosen as much clothing as possible
- Provide the person with cool drinking water
- Work to cool the person as quickly as possible with:
- A cold water or ice bath, or
- Apply cool wet compresses or ice packs under the arms, on the neck, ankle, groin, and behind the knees
- Fan air over their body
The final type of heat-related illness is rhabdomyolysis. Exertional heat stroke can lead to this condition, where muscle tissue begins to break down. This releases high levels of potassium into the blood which can lead to seizures and cardiac arrhythmias.
Rhabdomyolysis symptoms include:
- Muscle cramps or pain
- A decreased range of motion
- Abnormally dark tea- or cola-colored urine
If you or someone else is experiencing symptoms of rhabdomyolysis, seek medical attention immediately. Stop activity and drink water while you wait for medical attention to arrive.
While it can feel unsettling to learn about the different types of heat-related illnesses, it’s important to recognize the different types of heat-related illnesses so you can respond appropriately, and call for medical attention as soon as possible when necessary.
Remember that heat-related illnesses are preventable. Take care to identify the hazards that can make heat-related illnesses more likely, like working outdoors in the sun and heat or high humidity. If you know you’re going to be working in hot conditions, do your best to implement heat-related illness prevention tactics wherever possible.
If you or your employees are working in the heat, understanding what to expect from and how to address the different types of heat-related illness can help keep everyone safe. For more heat-related illness education, consider checking out eSafety’s Heat-Related Illness Awareness course, which covers all of the different types of heat-related illnesses and more. For more information about our courses contact our team online or request a free quote today!