Hesperian Health Guides

Heat Emergencies

Heat cramps and, heat exhaustion (heat sickness)

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Working hard in hot conditions can cause painful cramps in the legs, arms, or stomach. This is probably caused by losing too much salt from sweating. Gently stretch out cramps, by moving the feet, or slowly walking.

Treat heat exhaustion (heat sickness) as soon as signs appear. If not treated, heat exhaustion can worsen into heat stroke.

  • Extreme thirst.
  • Weakness.
  • Headache.
  • Nausea or abdominal cramps.
  • The skin is usually sweaty and may be cool and pale.
  • There may be a prickly feeling on the skin or a rash.
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  • Rest in a cool place. Take off extra clothes.
  • Give rehydration drink —mix ½ teaspoon salt and 8 teaspoons of sugar or cooked cereal in 1 liter water.
  • Give plenty of other cool liquids too.

Heat stroke

Heat stroke is a very dangerous condition that is caused by being too hot for too long. Left untreated, it can kill.

  • Fast pulse and fast breathing
  • Skin flushed (red), warm, dry or clammy
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Confusion
  • Passing out or seizures
  • High fever, greater than 40° C
a fat woman holding a fan and looking uncomfortable.
a young man sweating while working outside.
Heat stroke happens to people who are not able to recover quickly enough from getting too hot: old people, babies, the ill, very fat people, and alcoholics are most vulnerable. Heat stroke can also happen to a healthy young adult who has worked or exercised too long in the heat. These people tend to be sweaty instead of having dry skin.


Cool the person as fast as possible: move to the shade. Take off extra clothes. Fan the person and wipe them with cool, wet cloths all over the body. Put ice packs or cold cloths on the neck, armpits, and groin. An otherwise healthy person can be dunked in a bath of ice‑cold water, but this is dangerous for an old person or someone who is already ill.

When the person is alert, give rehydration drink. Or give a lot of any cool drink. But be careful the person does not choke: breathing problems are common with heat stroke.

Someone with heat stroke can get worse quickly so if possible it is best to get medical help.


To prevent heat-related problems outside, wear light-colored clothing and shade the face and back of the neck with a hat. Indoor work spaces should have enough air flow and fans. Take regular breaks and drink lots of liquids. Avoid or limit drinking beer and other alcohol while working or playing sports in the heat because alcohol causes dehydration.


Problems with sunburn usually are often more serious for people with light skin color. The skin becomes red, painful, and hot, and in severe cases it will blister and swell. Blisters from sunburn, as from other burns, can get easily infected. A single sunburn is not dangerous, but many sunburns over time can lead to skin cancer (for information on skin cancer, see the chapter on Cancer).

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A sunburn will heal on its own after a few days. Aloe or a mild pain medicine can help. There may be some local treatments in your area that cool and relieve the skin.


Wear a hat and clothing that covers the skin when the sun is strong. Sunscreen lotion that is rubbed into the skin before going into the sun can also help prevent sunburn.

This page was updated:17 Sep 2020