Heat exhaustion is a non–life-threatening clinical syndrome of weakness, malaise, nausea, syncope, and other nonspecific symptoms caused by heat exposure. Thermoregulation is not impaired. IV fluids and electrolyte replacement are needed.
Heat exhaustion is caused by water and electrolyte imbalance due to heat exposure, with or without exertion.
Rarely, severe heat exhaustion after hard work may be complicated by rhabdomyolysis, myoglobinuria, acute renal failure, and disseminated intravascular coagulation.
Symptoms and Signs
Symptoms are often vague, and patients may not realize that heat is the cause. Symptoms may include weakness, dizziness, headache, nausea, and sometimes vomiting. Syncope due to standing for long periods in the heat (heat syncope) is common and may mimic cardiovascular disorders. On examination, patients appear tired and are usually sweaty and tachycardic. Mental status is typically normal, unlike in heatstroke. Temperature is usually normal and, when elevated, usually does not exceed 40° C.
Diagnosis is clinical and requires exclusion of other possible causes (eg, hypoglycemia, acute coronary syndrome, various infections). Laboratory testing is required only if needed to rule out such disorders.
Treatment involves removing patients to a cool environment, having them lie flat, and giving IV fluid and electrolyte replacement therapy, typically using 0.9% saline solution; oral rehydration does not provide sufficient electrolytes. Rate and volume of rehydration are guided by age, underlying disorders, and clinical response. Replacement of 1 to 2 L at 500 mL/h is often adequate. Elderly patients and patients with heart disorders may require only slightly lower rates; patients with suspected hypovolemia may require higher rates initially. External cooling measures (see Treatment) are usually not required. However, if patients with heat exhaustion have a core temperature of ≥ 40° C, measures may be taken to reduce it.
Last full review/revision February 2010 by James P. Knochel, MD
Content last modified February 2012