Now that days of staggering heat are becoming normalized, what does this mean for our health?
At the onset, it's a good idea to educate yourself about the symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion — as well as the differences between them. We got in touch with W. Larry Kenney, a professor of health and human development at Penn State who focuses on the body's ability to regulate its temperature.
"Heat exhaustion is far less serious [than heat stroke]," he says in an email, "but still relevant to health and wellbeing. Heat exhaustion is usually an affliction of dehydration and most often occurs during work or physical activity."
When the outside temperature gets too high, our body responds by sending a large quantity of blood into the skin. The blood is fairly hot when it arrives, but the red stuff begins to cool down after its internal heat dissipates through the epidermis. However, this will only work if you're consuming enough water and sodium. Kenney explains that after you become dehydrated, your cardiovascular system can't "pump large volumes of blood" toward the skin. That leaves you vulnerable to heat exhaustion, a condition whose symptoms include fainting, excessive sweating and a diminished appetite.
Though severe cases of heat exhaustion might require intravenous therapy, you can usually treat it by drinking more fluids and getting rest in a cool place. Unfortunately, heat stroke is a lot harder to remedy.
Sufferers of heat exhaustion often feel cold to the touch due to all the sweating they may experience. Yet people who are going through heat stroke feel alarmingly hot. The latter manifests itself when your internal temperature control system fails. Victims of heat stroke have core body temperatures of 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) or higher. Once you get that hot, your nerve cells and organs may be permanently damaged, which explains why heat stroke kills around 240 people every year in the United States alone.
In some cases, heat stroke sets in after a prolonged period of physical activity in hot, humid environments. On the other hand, it can also strike a person who's staying sedentary, especially if we're talking about an elderly individual or a young child. Regardless, Kenney cites heat stroke as "a life-threatening emergency" that has to be treated "by cooling the victim quickly and intensely."