How To Tell The Difference Between Heat Stroke And Exhaustion


Heat strokeIt’s hot as death out here. Literally. Today in many places it’s well over 90 degrees outside. And if we aren’t careful that can mean heat exhaustion or even heat stroke. I should know, two years ago my Mom almost died of heat stroke right in front of me. 

It’s a long story but I’ll try to make it short.

I may not succeed given it’s the most traumatic thing I’ve ever been through beyond the birth of my child.

We were attending a festival on the east coast where we camp out for almost a week. Temperatures were high just like this summer. My mom was busy being the ultimate grandmother carrying babies and toddlers, and pushing strollers up big hills.

My mom has always been the toughest, even though she struggles with Fibromyalgia like I do, a chronic pain disorder.

She was also working shifts as a volunteer at the festival. Often I’d see her soaked in sweat, but cold to the touch.

She was drinking water but not resting enough and it was just so very hot.

She was spending a lot of time in the sun.

At the end of a long day my mom seemed out of it.

Tired beyond her usual (which is a lot since the exhaustion that comes with all the work she was doing plus a pain disorder is heavy). She couldn’t seem to put full sentences together. Seemed kind of loopy. I thought maybe she had had some wine and was overtired. We sent her to bed early.

The next morning I went to wake my mom up so she could watch my six-month-old daughter and she was unconscious.

Not just unconscious but blue. It was terrifying. I’ve never in my life been so scared. I shook her and said,

“Mom! Mom wake up!”

And she wheezed a sound that you usually would hear from a clogged garbage disposal. 

I ran for help.

I practically threw my baby at another of our friends and told them to send someone running for the paramedics (there is a med tent on the grounds). I proceeded to also call 911 while tilting my mom’s head up to try to get her air. They arrived within ten minutes and took her away on a stretcher to the hospital.

I felt myself break into a million pieces, scattered with fear.

She spent a week in the hospital, 3 days of that in a coma. My quick movements had saved her life. She had aspirated on her own vomit in her half unconscious sleep.

She could have died if I hadn’t tried to wake her. 

I will never forget those moments. Every year around this time I get flashbacks before I go to sleep of her face when I tried to wake her. I blame myself for not seeing the signs the day before.

For that week we didn’t know if she would ever be the same again. At one point after she woke up and could talk, all she could say was her birthday and that she was scared. You never want to hear that your mom is scared and cannot say her name. She was 57 years old at the time.

Luckily, almost magically, after a few days of her brain being re-oxygenated she became herself again. She came home a few days later. She’s now totally fine. Better than fine. She learned so much from that about her health and health care. We have all learned a lot.

Now we know that medications for her illness put her at higher risk of overheating and getting heat stroke.

Certain medications have that as a side effect and your doctor won’t necessarily go through every single side effect when you are prescribed. Now she’s adjusted her meds, and is aware of the consequences to not enough rest and too much heat. But often I’ll see people say heat stroke in a sometimes lighthearted way, like it’s something that you can just get a cool cloth or sit in front of a fan and come back from.

Heat stroke is not just being hot, it’s caused by untreated heat exhaustion.

And it can happen so fast. Heat stroke acts like an actual stroke. People can and have died from it.

So here’s the info you need – the differences between Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion and how to treat them – which can also be found on the Center for Disease Control’s website


Heat Exhaustion Symptoms:

  • Cool clammy skin
  • Excessive sweating
  • Faint or dizzy
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Rapid weak pulse
  • Muscle cramps


What You Should Do To Avoid Heat Exhaustion:

  • Get to air conditioning.
  • Take a cold shower if possible.
  • Apply cold cloths and ice to the neck and use a fan.
  • Drink a ton of water. The amount of water should be in direct correlation to how much you are losing. If the person isn’t fully conscious do not have them drink they are going over the line to heat stroke and need IV fluids. 


Heat Stroke Symptoms:

  • Throbbing headache
  • Temperature of 103+ 
  • Red, hot, and dry skin
  • Rapid strong pulse
  • No sweating
  • Vomiting
  • May become unconscious


What To Do If You Notice These Signs Of Heat Stroke:

  • CALL 911!
  • Take immediate action to cool the person until help arrives.
  • Remove clothing, apply cold cloths and ice packs. Fans. ANYTHING to help cool them but always call 911. 

For more information about Heat Stroke and Heat Exhaustion, please see the CDC’s informative page here, or consult with a medical professional.


I guess this wasn’t a short story about Heat Stroke after all.

But it’s hard to make something that gave you PTSD for life take up only a few short paragraphs. So please be careful out there.

If you think you are feeling out of it in the heat, take a moment and go back inside. Drink extremely cold water. Think about how much you are sweating and how your skin feels. Be aware, for yourself and others. Especially for anyone on medication, the elderly, or small children.

Stay safe out there. I hope none of you ever has to deal with Heat Stroke affecting a loved one the way we did. 

heat stroke

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Liz McTan is an entrepreneur, blogger, singer/songwriter and above all a mom. On her blog The Redheaded Rambling Mama she focuses on the necessity of connection and establishing our own village. Liz also writes about maintaining a sense of self after children, and beating the illusion of perfect parenting we see throughout social media and keeping a sense of humor to stay sane. She is a proponent of traveling, protesting, and even attending festivals with your kids. Through her battle with post-partum depression and anxiety she has found a new sense of self and purpose in her writing and music with her band Echo Hill. You can read more of her work at or on her social media pages and