Heat Exhaustion Tips for Healthcare Professionals

Healthcare professionals are often at risk of experiencing heat exhaustion and related heat illnesses during the hotter months or in environments with high temperatures. The combination of working long hours in physically demanding settings and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) can increase opportunities for heat exhaustion or illness to develop. 

Anyone working in healthcare should take extra precautions to prevent heat exhaustion and subsequent illnesses by understanding and recognizing the signs and symptoms in themselves and others, taking preventative action, and knowing when it’s time to seek medical attention. 

Understanding Heat Exhaustion

People suffer from heat illnesses when their bodies are unable to get rid of excess heat and cool down. Heat-related illnesses often start with heat cramps followed by heat exhaustion and heat stroke, heat stroke being the most dangerous and a medical emergency. 

Heat exhaustion is the body’s response to extreme loss of water and salt, which is a result of excessive sweating. This can happen within a few minutes or gradually over a period of hours or days. 

When the body starts to overheat, the heart beats faster and harder as the blood vessels enlarge. This is the body’s attempt to send heat from the internal “core” so it can be released into the outside environment. 

If this doesn’t bring the body’s temperature down fast enough, the brain triggers sweating to assist the body in cooling. Sweat is the natural process of drawing water from the bloodstream, which then evaporates to release heat.

Unfortunately, sweating leads to a high loss of water and salt at the same time. In fact, in just one hour of heavy work in hot weather, one person can easily sweat out an entire quart of water. If that water loss goes on too long without intervention, they will become dehydrated. 

As dehydration gets worse, it makes it difficult (or even impossible) for the body to keep its temperature within the normal range (within a few degrees of 98.6° F). It is at this point that heat exhaustion begins to set in.

The Dangers of Heat Exhaustion

Heat stress has multiple stages and can become dangerous very quickly. A person might first notice a heat rash, which happens when sweat gets trapped in the skin. They may also develop heat cramps, which occur as a result of the loss of electrolytes and a rising body temperature. 

Heat cramps are among the first signs that you’re at risk of developing or have started to develop heat exhaustion. If the condition progresses and heat exhaustion isn’t treated, it can lead to heat stroke. Heat stroke is caused by a rapid rise in body temperature and causes damage to the brain, muscles, and vital organs. Without emergency intervention, it may result in death. 

These conditions have to be taken seriously, and all of them require immediate attention. However, even if you don’t notice these symptoms, you still need to be wary of heat. Heat can increase the risk of injuries in healthcare as it brings on sweaty palms, fogs up safety glasses, and may lead to dizziness or fainting.

Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

There are several signs and symptoms of heat illness, including heat exhaustion and stroke, that you can watch out for to keep yourself and your colleagues safe, including:

  • Heavy sweating
  • Weakness or tiredness
  • Cool, pale, clammy skin
  • A fast, weak pulse
  • Muscle cramps
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Fainting

While anyone can experience heat stress or heat illness, those who are at greater risk include people who are 65 years of age or older, struggle with obesity, have heart disease or high blood pressure, or take medications that react to extreme heat. 

Among healthcare professionals, workers at risk of heat stress include those who work outside or in environments with high temperatures including lab workers, emergency responders, medical technicians, and others. Anyone who is exposed to high temperatures, whether inside or outside, may develop heat-related illnesses. 

How To Prevent Heat Stress

While it’s difficult, sometimes even impossible, to avoid working in hot environments or wearing PPE as a healthcare worker, there are things you can do to help prevent heat exhaustion and the risk of heat stroke. 


Drink plenty of water. It’s difficult to find time to sit down and have a drink when you’re working, but choose a water bottle that you can take on the go and take sips often. Hydration mixes can also help you feel better on long or hot days. Avoid drinks with caffeine, such as tea, coffee, and sodas. While they are all liquids, they are diuretics and may contribute to dehydration. 

Dress Appropriately

If you live in a hot climate, do your best to wear light clothing and sunscreen. If it becomes necessary for you to wear protective clothing for your job, know that personal protective equipment (PPE) will add lots of layers that can trap heat and moisture. Ensure your bottom layer is loose and breathable. 

Pace Yourself

Healthcare professionals are often required to work long shifts, sometimes even overnight. Do your best to take breaks when you can. Get rest when you can so your body can have all of its defenses healthy and prepared to fight illness (and heat exhaustion). 

Use the Buddy System

Have a coworker be your buddy, and watch for signs of developing heat-related symptoms. Check in with each other often and be honest about how you are feeling. 

Understand Your Climate

Particularly if you are a travel nurse, it’s important to understand the climate of where you are working. If you move from a cooler climate to somewhere hot and/or humid, your body is going to take some time to adjust to the heat. Be prepared to be patient with your body, drink more water, and slowly work into exercising in the heat. 

Practice Self Care

At Supplemental Health Care, we understand that it’s easy to get wrapped up in caring for your patients or students and forget to take care of yourself. It’s in moments like those when dangerous heat-related illnesses can take hold. 

Take breaks, even if you feel like pushing through. Drink lots of water and take your lunch break (and be sure to eat healthy foods to keep up your strength). Make sure you get plenty of sleep as well. All of these healthy habits are a part of self care, and they will give you the strength you need to help others safely. 

When To Seek Medical Attention

For the most part, the initial stages of heat sickness can be treated by finding a cool place to rest and having a drink of water. It can help to add electrolytes to the water, as well. However, once the symptoms progress into heat exhaustion, it is necessary to seek medical attention. 

If you (or others) become nauseated, begin vomiting, or are disoriented, dizzy, or faint, move to a cool or shaded place, start drinking water (if possible), and seek medical attention immediately. 

Take Care of Yourself

Understanding the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses can help you keep yourself and those around you safe while you’re on the job. If you work in a warm climate or in situations with high temperatures, the signs of heat illnesses should always be on your mind. We encourage you to educate yourself and commit to practices that help identify, respond to, and resolve heat illnesses on the job.
Supplemental Health Care is committed to supporting healthcare professionals in their careers caring for others, while also caring for themselves. For more information about finding a healthcare or school role and partnering with our team, contact us today to get started.