Sun/Heat Stroke or Heat Exhaustion…What’s the Difference?


Long ago in the early to mid 1900s, a young English teacher travelled from Michigan to Florida with his wife and two young sons. It was a long time coming, this decision to “fly south”; perhaps the idea to do so stemmed from a long-standing, ongoing correspondence with a chum by the name of Thomas Edison, who knows? Regardless of what prompted the decision, Mr. Pearl packed up his little family and moved and soon he had taken up horticulture and did, indeed, work with Mr. Edison in his gardens! In the process of discovering his love of working outside with all things growing, he also learned a valuable lesson on the subjects of sun stroke and heat exhaustion!

It took awhile for their systems to adjust to the climate and eventually he learned the hard way that special care and certain precautions must be taken if one plans to live comfortably and safely  with the weather in Florida.  First he fell victim to heat exhaustion and then later, not having quite mastered recognizing the signs, had a heat stroke which was severe enough to send him to the hospital. “It was no fun, I’ll tell you,” I remember my grandfather telling me.

Funny thing about the weather in Florida. It can be only 78 degrees and yet feel as if it’s 108. Tropical humidity does that.

But then you have those wonderful tropical breezes (as long as you’re on the ‘seashore’) which seem to cool things down so dramatically. And therein lies a perception problem…and the posibilities of suffering from heatstroke.

Heat, or sun, stroke and heat exhaustion are relatively simple to avoid as long as you pay attention to the signals your body gives you. Fortunately, heat exaustion will respond readily to prompt treatment if you keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms, which are very obvious and easily interpreted. They include:

  • headache
  • nausea
  • weakness
  • thirst
  • giddiness
  • confusion and/or slurred, disjointed speech (much like a cerebral stroke)

Heat stroke is very serious and should not be dismissed lightly. It is not uncommon for fainting (“heat collapse”) to occur when one is suffering from heat exhaustion. This happens because blood pools in the extremities, causing a lack of oxygen bearing blood to the brain, interfering in the body’s natural cooling “mechanism” trigger. Worse, the onset of heat collapse is rapid and unpredictable and can be dangerous if not treated as a medical emergency.

Anyone suffering from heat exhaustion should be removed to a shady, cool location. Cool compresses, or ice packs wrapped in a cloth should be applied to the back of the neck, the armpits and groin areas and cool (not iced) water, or Gatorade which has added electrolytes, should be administered in small sips to avoid cramping and nausea. Misting the skin with a spray bottle of water will help cool things down by virtue of evaporation, which is what happens when we sweat.

It would probably be a wise practice to have small instructional posters placed in strategic locations near the most active areas outside of your home, like the patio, garage or even laundry room. Alongside of those, you might also consider something for your pets as well.

Dogs, cats and other pets are at an even greater risk for heat stroke and heat exhaustion than human beings, simply because they can’t tell you what’s wrong. And they don’t only suffer heat stroke by being closed up in a car, either. Any day that a great deal of humidity and heat can kill an animal unless you are just as aware of their comfort and safety as your own.

Make sure your pet has fresh cool water available at all times. You also want to provide   a shady place that’s well ventilated where he can escape the heat. And remember that the signs of heat stroke or heat exhaustion are quite the same for animals as they are for we two-legged critters. Confusion can be recognized by a glazed, unfocused look to the eyes when you speak to your pet, and they can become wobbly on their feet, too.

The same treatment applies to your pet who begins to show signs of a heat related condition: cool compresses in the front leg/arm pits, back of neck and groin, mist your pet with a spray bottle to utitlize the cooling effect of evaporation and offer small amounts of cool, not icy, water.

Don’t assume that spraying your dog while he’s playing in the sunshine, chasing the kids in the sprinkler, or that by jumping in the pool he will stay cool without a shady spot. Don’t forget, that fur coat your pet is wearing is going to turn into a steamy, water laden burden if he stays in the sun and there’s no breeze. Be as considerate and kind to your pets as you are with yourself and your other loved ones!

The bottom line with heat stroke, sun stroke or heat exhaustion is the same as with any other medical condition:  Be Aware! Pay Attention! Prepare in advance for any emergency situation or potential safety issue.

Above all, don’t be afraid to talk to a doctor if any or all of the symptoms of heat stroke begin to show.  Just as with any other type of stroke, detected early enough you can avoid serious, life threatening consequences. Learn the signs and keep emergency numbers on a notepad by your phone, and don’t forget to include the number to your nearest animal hospital emergency!