Heat stress

Heat stress describes a range of conditions caused by being over exposed to heat. Your body absorbs more heat than it can dispel.

Heat stress ranges from minor conditions to life-threatening conditions like heat stroke.

You should act quickly if you or someone else is suffering from heat stress.

Parts of the Northern Territory (NT) experience temperatures higher than 40 degrees. 

You may not be used to the heat if you are a new resident to the NT.

People at risk

Groups most at risk of heat stress are any of the following:

  • young children
  • elderly
  • alcohol drinkers
  • people carrying excess weight
  • people with health problems
  • people on medication that have a drying effect or reduce sweating.

What causes heat stroke

You can get heat stress if you do any of the following:

  • don't drink enough water
  • over exert yourself
  • get too much sun.

Avoiding heat stress

When you are exposed to high temperatures your body must be able to sweat to lose heat.

You should do all of the following:

  • drink plenty of fluids - two to three litres of water per day - your urine should be light yellow
  • avoid alcohol
  • avoid strenuous activities for a few weeks until you get used to the hotter climate
  • wear light clothing and wide-brimmed hat
  • use sunscreen
  • do not take salt tablets unless prescribed by a doctor
  • stay cool indoors - use curtain, shutters or awnings and leave windows open at night, if you don't have air conditioning use fans and damp towels
  • have cold showers
  • avoid exposure to heat - stay in air conditioned buildings
  • don't plan activities during heat of the day
  • don't leave pets or children in parked vehicles - even with the windows open
  • get medical help if you have a chronic illness and feel unwell.

You should also protect your pets by giving them shade and plenty of water. 

Minor conditions

Heat rash

An itchy and painful skin rash caused by blockages to the sweat ducts and an increase in pressure of the sweat ducts.

Heat cramps

Painful cramps affecting various muscles or muscle groups and parts of the body.


When blood vessels in your extremities dilate to increase heat transfer to the skin, causing reduced blood flow to the heart and brain.


Include all of the following:

  • heavy sweating, tired and thirsty
  • moist cool skin
  • irritability
  • loss of appetite
  • nausea
  • prickly heat rash
  • muscle spasms and/or twitching
  • painful muscle cramps in the abdomen, arms and legs.


To help someone with one of these conditions you should do all of the following:

  • move them to a cool place
  • lie them down with legs supported and slightly elevated
  • have a cool shower or bath
  • get them to drink more water
  • massage muscles gently to easy spasm, or if firmly cramped then apply ice packs and drink glucose such as dilated cordial.

You should not give them salt.

Heat exhaustion

This is a serious illness which can progress to heat stroke if not properly treated.

People who aren't acclimatised usually get this condition.


Include all of the following:

  • profuse sweating
  • cold, clammy, pale skin
  • fatigue, weakness and restlessness
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea and/or vomiting
  • weak but rapid pulse
  • normal temperature
  • faintness.


To help someone with heat exhaustion you should do all of the following:

  • move them to a cool place
  • lie them down with legs supported and slightly elevated
  • loosen clothing
  • cool them down with wet cloths to their head and body and fan them
  • give sips of water
  • if vomiting continues, get medical help immediately.

Heat stroke (hyperthermia)

This is a medical emergency - call 000 immediately.

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. It happens when your body is unable to control its temperature. 

Your temperature rises rapidly to dangerous levels and internal systems start to shut down, leading to permanent disability or death without emergency treatment.


Include all of the following:

  • high body temperature - more than 40 degrees celcius
  • altered mental state, such as confusion, disorientation, rapid development of unconsciousness
  • dry skin - this is not often present
  • dry swollen tongue
  • rapid, strong pulse at first then weaker
  • headache
  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • fits/seizures and/or coma.


You should seek medical help urgently. 

While you are waiting for help you should do all of the following:

  • move them to a cool place
  • lay them down with legs supported and slightly elevated
  • remove clothing
  • cool them down rapidly
    • apply ice packs to their groin and armpits
    • apply cool water or wrap them in a wet sheet and fan them.
  • if they are unconscious check their airway, breathing and pulse
  • if they are in cardiac arrest begin CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation)
  • if they are breathing and have a pulse, position the unconscious person on their side and clear airway
  • do not give sips of cold water.

Last updated: 12 May 2016

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