Prevention & Preparedness
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Prevention & Preparedness
San Diego Spotlight

Too Hot San Diego? Know the Symptoms and Treatments for Heat Exhaustion and Heatstroke

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Children play in downtown fountains during the heat.This summer, San Diego temperatures topped 100 degrees F in the valleys and 124 in the desert. 124 degrees is the highest temperature ever recorded in San Diego County, and according to the National Weather Service it is only 10 degrees shy of the hottest temperature ever recorded on the planet (Death Valley, 1913, 134 degrees F).

During periods of intense heat, there are three increasing stages of illness to watch for: heat cramps, which is the mildest, heat exhaustion and heatstroke which is the most severe stage and can be deadly.

The basic cause of these illnesses are lack of water and salt in the body. The stages are a continuum and each person might react differently at each stage.  The chart below is a general guideline, with detailed symptoms and treatments for each stage, with the major difference in symptoms between heat exhaustion and heatstroke highlighted in red.

Additionally, often we forget that cats and dogs are as impacted, and sometimes more than people. If you must take your pets out into the heat, please make sure you are aware of their signs of heatstroke which are detailed in the sections below.

Stage 1: Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are muscle spasms that wrack the body when it has lost large amounts of salt and water through exercise.


Cramps occur in the abdomen, arms, and calves.


  • Rest in the shade
  • Drink fluids like water and electrolyte drinks
  • Once the cramps subside, hold off returning to play or activity in the heat for a few hours

What to do if you have heatstroke

Stage 2: Heat exhaustion

According to WebMd, There are two types of heat exhaustion:

  • Water depletion, which can include excessive thirst, weakness, headache, and loss of consciousness
  • Salt depletion: includes nausea and vomiting, muscle cramps, and dizziness

Although heat exhaustion isn’t as serious as heatstroke, without proper intervention, it can become heatstroke.


  • Cool, moist skin with goose bumps in the heat
  • Heavy sweating
  • Weak pulse
  • Faintness, dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Confusion
  • Dark urine (from dehydration)


  • Move to a shady place or an air-conditioned room
  • Drink fluids like water or sport drinks (avoid caffeine and alcohol)
  • Remove any tight or extra clothing
  • Take a cool shower or bath
  • Use fans or ice towels

If these treatments do not provide relief within 15 minutes, seek medical help. After recovery, the patient may be more sensitive to heat for a short period.

Stage 3: Heatstroke

First aid instructions for heatstrokeHeatstroke, AKA sunstroke, AKA hyperthermia is caused by your body heating to a core temperature of 104 degrees F or higher. This can be caused by prolonged exposure to heat or physical exertion in high temperatures. Heatstroke causes your brain or other vital organs to swell, which could cause permanent damage or death.


Heatstroke symptoms include:

  • Body temperature above 104 degrees
  • Reduced sweating: skin can feel hot and dry After exercise skin may feel dry or slightly damp
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Confusion, slurred speech, irritability
  • Seizures
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Flushed skin
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Muscle weakness or cramps
  • Unconsciuosness


Heatstroke can occur as a result of:

  • Excess clothing that prevents sweat from evaporating to cool your body
  • Drinking alcohol, which can hinder the body’s ability to regulate temperature
  • Dehydration due to fluids lost through sweating

Risk factors

Several factors increase your heatstroke risk:

  • Adults over 65 and children up to age 4 are more at risk for heatstroke, because their central nervous systems are not fully functional
  • Sudden exposure or exertion in hot weather
  • Humidity of 60% or more hinders sweat evaporation, which compromises the body’s ability to cool itself
  • Inability to get out of the heat. Fans help, but air conditioning is the most effective way to cool air and reduce humidity
  • Chronic health conditions or obesity
  • Medications. Be especially careful in hot weather if you take:
    • Vasoconstrictors – narrow blood vessels
    • Beta blockers – regulate blood pressure by blocking adrenaline
    • Diuretics – reduce sodium and water
    • Antidepressants or antipsychotics
    • Stimulants

Check with your doctor to see if health conditions and medications can affect your susceptibility to heat illnesses.


If you suspect someone has heatstroke, call 911 or transport the person to a hospital. Any delay seeking medical help can be fatal.

While waiting for emergency service, cool the overheated person by:

  • Get them into shade
  • removing unnecessary clothing
  • Cool the person
    • Put in a cool (NOT COLD) tub of water or a cool shower
    • Spray with a garden hose
    • Sponge with cool water
    • Fan and mist with cool water
    • Place ice packs or cool, wet towels on the forehead, armpits, neck, and groin – the arteries – to increase cool temperatures at their core
  • DO NOT take fever reducing medications like Tylenol

If emergency response is delayed, call the emergency room for additional instructions.

Preventing Heatstroke

If you must go outdoors on a hot day, you can prevent heatstroke by taking these steps:

  • Wear lightweight,loose-fitting, light-colored, clothing, and a brim hat
  • Use sunscreen with SPF of 30+
  • Drink extra fluids – sports beverages or fruit juice – to replace salt and other electrolytes
  • Avoid fluids containing caffeine or alcohol
  • Reschedule outdoor activities to early morning or after sunset
  • Monitor urine. Dark urine is a sign of dehydration
  • Stay in contact with friends and family
  • Know the cooling centers in your area. Cooling centers can be found through a San Diego County interactive map. Type in your zip code and it will show you cool zones nearby

During a heat wave, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that seniors living alone be visited at least twice daily and monitored closely for signs of heatstroke or exhaustion.

For more information,  visit the CDC website.

Symptoms and Treatments of Heatstroke in Dogs

How to treat heatstroke in a dogA popular East County trail called Three Sisters Falls has had multiple rescues every day this summer, yet people continue to hike it and bring their dogs, not understanding the danger.

Dogs can’t sweat. They regulate their body temperature by panting. In high heat, there is no cool air to help them cool their bodies, and they are at risk for heatstroke.

Once a dog’s temperature rises above 105 degrees, it begins to experience heatstroke. At 106 to 108 degrees F, a dog may suffer irreversible damage to the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, heart, and brain.


When a dog is experiencing heatstroke you may observe:

  • Excessive panting
  • increased salivation
  • dry, hot gums that become pale and grayish
  • rapid or erratic pulse
  • weakness
  • confusion
  • inattention
  • vomiting
  • diarrhea
  • possible rectal bleeding
  • Unconsciousness


  • Move the dog into shade
  • Apply cool, NOT cold water to the inner thighs and stomach and foot pads. Cold water can cause blood vessels to constrict, slowing the cooling process. Do not cover with a wet towel
  • Use a faucet or hose to wet down your dog’s body. DON’T submerge your dog in water – this could cool the dog too quickly, leading to complications
  • Keep air flowing over your pet
  • Keep the dog moving, helping cooled blood to circulate to its core
  • Offer small amounts of cool water
  • See a veterinarian

Symptoms and Treatments of Heatstroke in Cats

Be aware of heatstroke in catsCats can also suffer from heat exhaustion and heatstroke due to excessive heat, exercise, and/or anxiety. They can only regulate their body temperature through panting or sweating from their foot pads. According to petmd.com, a normal cat temperature is between 100-103 degrees F. Any temperature over 103 degrees requires a visit to the vet.


When a cat is experiencing heatstroke, you may see:

  • Panting/drooling: Open mouth breathing is not normal by cats and should be checked out by a vet
  • Red tongue
  • Sweating from the feet
  • Excessive grooming
  • Collapse/coma
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargy (More than usual)
  • Dizziness (staggering)
  • Muscle tremors
  • Seizures


  • Move your cat immediately to a cool environment
  • Keep air flowing over their bodies
  • Give them access to water but do not force them to drink
  • Apply cool, NOT cold, water to your cat’s body and paws
  • Apply ice packs between their legs
  • Consult a veterinarian as soon as possible