Heat Emergencies for EMS – The Summer Time Blues

It’s just about here! Summer time is awesome in where I live. It almost makes those long winter months seem worth it. Almost. With the warm weather close upon us it’s time to review some of the common complaints that EMS providers seem to see more of in the summer time. Gone are the days of frostbite and hypothermia and here are the days of heat stroke and bee stings. It pays to brush up on these complaints because we’ll be seeing them before we know it.

Heat Emergencies

We humans are a fickle bunch. Get us too cold or too hot and we tend to get sick as the dog days of summer. Since there’s little chance of hypothermia coming in the summer, a review of the hotter side of environmental emergencies couldn’t hurt. In emergency care, heat emergencies are generally classified into three levels in terms of severity. These are:

  • Heat Cramps
  • Heat Exhaustion
  • Heat Stoke

It’s important to remember that these classifications aren’t absolute and are harder to pin down when combined with concurrent medical conditions and other factors such as age, gender, and physical health. It’s also important to realize that some physical conditions, caffeine and alcohol consumption, and prescription medications can diminish a patient’s capacity for thermoregulation and precipitate heat injury.

Heat Cramps – Generally occurring in athletes or those undergoing physical exertion in a hot environment, heat cramps are muscle spasms that mostly occur in the abdomen or extremities. (Core temp 99.1-101.3)

Treatment for Heat Cramps includes general medical care, removing the person from the hot environment, providing oral fluid replacement, and cooling them gently.

Heat Exhaustion – Characterized by Fatigue, weakness, anxiety, intense headaches, profuse sweating, nausea/vomiting, and decreased urine output, heat exhaustion is caused by inadequate fluid intake and excessive fluid loss through sweating. It is essentially hypovolemia caused by hyperthermia and may be the result of several days of inadequate fluid replacement and dehydration. (Core temp 99-104)

Treatment includes much the same as the treatment for heat cramps. Do not give oral fluids to patients with a decreased level of consciousness. If your level allows, start an IV and consider a fluid bolus. Begin active cooling with ice packs to the axilla and groin. Monitor the patient’s vitals closely and watch for cardiac arrhythmias. BLS providers should consider an ALS intercept for fluid replacement.

Heat Stroke – This is a true medical emergency and aggressive treatment is warranted. It is characterized by a decreased level of consciousness, increased pulse and respiratory rates, and hypotension. Skin color, temperature, and moisture findings are not reliable but are generally hot and dry. It is becoming shown that patients that suffer near-fatal cases of heat stroke have a strikingly high 1 year mortality rate. (Core temp >105)


Treatment for Heat Stroke includes aggressive cooling with ice packs, evaporative cooling, and IV fluids. BLS providers should request an ALS intercept. Rapid transport is warranted. Manage the airway and other complaints such as arrhythmias as per protocol.

Watch your coworkers too. Make sure that your fellow EMS people are staying cool on incident scenes, especially when they may be wearing turnouts or other protective gear. When you're not actively performing tasks that require protective gear, strip it off to allow yourself to adequately cool. Push them to drink plenty of fluids and go to rehab when they need to. Be safe out there and watch each other’s backs. We need you out there.

  • Too Old To Work

    Ice packs and IV fluids are unlikely to help with Heat Stroke. Soaking the patient in cold fluids is the best treatment. Wrapping a patient in a sheet soaked with cold water and ice will rapidly cool them. Just be careful to monitor their airway. 

    The patient should be cooled to 102 degrees for best effect, not cooler.Any temp over 102 should definitely be treated.


      but my ice machine is sooo hard to get to in the rig:)

  • Zina Sem

    Hi, I’m writing an article about heat stroke treatments and would love to use your picture of the heat exhaustion / heat stroke (above). Please let me know if that would be possible, you and your website would be fully credited.


    Zina Semenovskaya, MD