Heat Exhaustion: A Real Threat In Hot Climates

If you travel, chances are you’ve at least seen heat exhaustion close up. It strikes when you’re exposed to heat for too long and you don’t drink enough water.

DISCLAIMER: I am a writer, not a doctor, and none of this is medical advice. I have traveled for 50 years to nearly 100 countries and have gained some experience on what works or doesn’t work for me. I share that experience in this series of articles, which can be your starting point for research. But when it comes to actual prevention, treatment, and care, ALWAYS consult a qualified medical practitioner.

This can happen if you’re hiking or trekking or on a long and dusty bus journey or simply sitting in the sun. It can even happen if you’re walking around downtown Bangkok on an April afternoon, when the city heat can almost crush you.

In case that’s not enough – humidity makes heat conditions even worse.

According to medical specialists, here’s what it looks like: heavy sweating and clammy skin, heavier pulse rate and faster breathing than usual, weakness, dizziness and nausea, fever, muscle cramps…

Too much heat can also provoke other conditions, especially if you’re older or already suffer from other illnesses, like high blood pressure. So if you’re in anything less than perfect health and are thinking of being active in hot weather, please be extra careful.

If you suspect you’re suffering from heat exhaustion, treat yourself, fast – because untreated, it can lead to an even more serious condition, heatstroke. But more on that shortly.


Remember, I’m not a medical doctor so please, please check with the professionals. My goal is to alert you to the dangers and possible solutions you may run into as you travel, not to offer medical advice.

Here are some actions that doctors recommend when suffering from heat exhaustion:

  • cool down: find some shade and rest, or get into the air conditioning if you’re in town – nip into a cinema or a shop – just get out of the heat
  • if you have access to ice – a bar or restaurant can usually oblige – make an ice pack for your neck and shoulders
  • sit in front of a fan if you can find one – and even better, do it with a wet face and neck
  • take a cool bath or a shower
  • if you’re not near one, use your bandanna, which should be part of your travel packing list: just wet it with your bottled water, and wrap it around your head and neck
  • speaking of water, drink, drink, drink – you need to make sure you don’t get dehydrated
  • if you do get dehydrated, dissolve some oral rehydration salts (they should be part of your first aid kit checklist) in a liter of water
  • forgot to bring ORS? make your own from this ORS recipe: add 1 tsp salt and 7-8 tsp sugar into your one-liter water bottle
  • failing this, drink a bottle of cola: you should find Coke in even the most remote villages
  • change into the lightest clothing you have: your sarong or a similar flowing garment would be best
  • if you’re dizzy, put your feet up to reverse the blood flow

And rest, rest, rest.

If heat exhaustion doesn’t disappear – or at least lessen significantly – after an hour, get to a doctor: you might have heatstroke.


Heatstroke is often heat exhaustion gone wrong. It needs to be dealt with as a life-threatening emergency because it can kill you or disable you permanently if it lasts too long. It is caused by the body’s failure to regulate its temperature normally.

Coca-cola in a supermarket
Coca-cola is available almost everywhere – seen here in Bali

The most important thing you can do about heatstroke is to avoid it. 

When heat exhaustion strikes, deal with it immediately: don’t let it turn into heatstroke, because that could kill you.

While you may have taken proper precautions, your traveling companions might not have. They may need your help.

Here are some of the symptoms that signal heatstroke:

  • extremely high temperature (which can damage the brain or other vital body organs)
  • rapid pulse
  • hot but dry skin (the body by now has stopped sweating – this is the danger zone)
  • confusion and nausea
  • speech may get slurred and the person might become incoherent
  • fainting

The absolute first thing to do is get emergency medical care. If you have a cell phone, call an ambulance or the emergency assistance number and let them know where the emergency is taking place. Time is of the essence. In the meantime, the heatstroke victim urgently needs to cool down. Get him or her into a tub of cool (not cold – the thermal shock could be deadly) water, wrap them in a wet sheet – do whatever you have to bring their temperature down while waiting for a doctor.

— Originally published on 31 July 2011

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