Is it heat stroke or food poisoning? Know how heat affects your stomach

High temperatures may trigger heat stroke and food poisoning, but they are not the same. Here's the difference between the two conditions and what you can do about it.
woman with nausea and stomach pain
Food poisoning and heat stroke are common in summers. Image courtesy: Adobe Stock
Arushi Bidhuri Published: 19 Jun 2024, 05:30 pm IST
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Extreme heat impacts people in different ways. From dizziness and fatigue to stomach problems, sweltering heat can have many side effects on health. As the temperature hits a new high, stomach issues like acidity and nausea become commonplace. However, one thing that often creates confusion is whether it is because of something you may have eaten or the weather. Well, if you do not know if it is heat stroke or food poisoning, here’s a breakdown of the two conditions.

How does heat affect your stomach?

Two of the most common conditions that affect people during the summer season are food poisoning and heat stroke. While they are different problems, people tend to confuse one with another. So, let us understand how heat affects your digestive system.

heat stroke
Hot temperature can lead to illnesses! Image courtesy: Adobe Stock

It is normal to have an upset stomach after eating some spicy food in the summer season. Ever wondered why? Rising temperatures can influence your gut health by affecting the digestive ability of your body. So, you may experience dehydration or heat-related illnesses like heat exhaustion or heat stroke when it’s hot and humid.

A study published in the journal Gut found that climate change, which is associated with extreme heat events, can increase the risk of gastrointestinal infections by 50 percent with diarrheal illnesses affecting 10 percent of these people.

“Heat can affect your stomach and make you vulnerable to several problems. Dehydration brought on by high temperatures may affect the stomach functions and intestines by reducing the blood flow to them. You may experience symptoms such as stomach cramps, nausea, and vomiting. Heat may even increase the risk of gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), stomach discomfort, and acid reflux,” explains Dr Harsh Kapoor, Chairman of the Institute of Gastroenterology, Hepatology, GI Surgery and Liver Transplant at Metro Hospital.

How does heat lead to food poisoning?

Foodborne illnesses, such as food poisoning, are illnesses contracted from eating or drinking certain foods or drinks. The sources are bacteria or other dangerous substances in the food or drink. Several factors can increase your risk of having food poisoning, says Dr Kapoor. These include:

1. Bacterial growth

Your gut becomes more susceptible to bacteria such as Salmonella, E. Coli, and Listeria in high temperatures. A study published in the Journal of Infection found that heat waves can increase the risk of bacterial infection by 34 percent. This generally happens when food becomes contaminated with microorganisms if it is not stored correctly.

Also Read: Everything you need to know about food poisoning and how to treat it

2. Not handling food properly

Leaving any food outside for a prolonged period during hot weather may increase the possibility of contamination. Dr Kapoor says that bacteria may develop if you do not refrigerate perishable food items such as dairy, meat, or shellfish.

3. Dehydration

When the temperature is too high, dehydration may occur. It can weaken the body’s defense system making it difficult for it to fight off infections, including food poisoning.

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Symptoms of food poisoning

The signs and symptoms of food poisoning may vary, depending on the germs that have infected you. Some of the most common symptoms of food poisoning, as per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps
  • High Fever
  • Headache
  • Sudden weakness in the body

In severe cases, people may experience:

  • Blood in stool
  • Diarrhea that lasts more than 3 days
  • High fever
  • Frequent vomiting
  • Dehydration

How does heat lead to heat stroke?

Heat stroke is the most serious kind of heat illness that occurs when the temperature is extremely hot. Too much exposure to high temperatures or physical activity during heat can make it difficult for your body to regulate temperature, leading to heat stroke. When the core temperature of your body increases to dangerously high levels (over 104°F or 40°C), its natural cooling mechanism fails and leads to heat stroke. It can occur due to dehydration, high humidity, physical exertion, and inadequate cooling systems like sweating, says the expert.

Symptoms of heat stroke

  • High body temperature
  • Feeling confused, slurred speech
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fast breathing
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Headache
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

It can lead to fatal consequences if treatment is delayed.

Also Read: Beware of heat stroke! Warning signs you should not ignore in heatwave

Food poisoning vs heat stroke: How to differentiate?

If you are unable to differentiate between food poisoning and heat stroke, you must understand the main symptoms and factors that can help distinguish between them. Symptoms of food poisoning are mostly gastrointestinal and include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and cramping in the stomach. These symptoms typically appear after consuming tainted food or drink.

Symptoms of food poisoning may last from several hours to several days, depending on the type of pathogen that has led to the problem and its severity.

On the other hand, heat stroke symptoms are related to your body’s response to overheating, including increased body temperature, changed mood, lack of perspiration, and fast heartbeat. These symptoms typically occur after being exposed to high temperatures or engaging in strenuous activity in the heat.

Heat stroke may require immediate medical attention, and recovery time may vary from one person to another. While people with mild symptoms may get better in a few days, severe cases may take a few weeks or more to fully recover and may have long-term repercussions.

How to avoid food poisoning in summer?

Here are some ways to avoid the problem, as recommended by the expert:

  • Store food properly: You should freeze or refrigerate perishables.
  • Handle food safely: Use different cutting boards for raw meat and other meals to prevent cross-contamination. You should also wash your hands, utensils, and surfaces well before and after preparing food.
  • Cook properly: It is important to cook food to the right internal temperature to kill hazardous bacteria, especially meat, poultry, shellfish, and eggs.
  • Take care of leftovers: Reheat and eat leftover food within a day after refrigerating them refrigerating them for two hours.
A woman about to vomit
Food poisoning is common during the summer season. Image courtesy: Freepik

How to avoid heat stroke?

Here are some simple yet effective preventive measures that you should consider, as explained by the expert:

  • Drink lots of fluids, especially water to keep yourself hydrated.
  • Avoid coffee and alcohol as these drinks may cause dehydration, and lead to heat stroke.
  • Wear appropriate clothing that is light-colored, loose, and lightweight when it’s hot outside.
  • Limit sun exposure as much as you can by staying indoors between the hours of 10 AM to 4 PM.
  • If you are outside, wear sunglasses and sunscreen to protect your eyes and skin from the harsh ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun.
  • Do not spend long periods under the sun, help your body adjust and increase the time you spend under the sun gradually.
  • Make sure the place you spend most of your day is well-ventilated.
  • Try to keep your body temperature in check by using cold showers, air conditioning, fans, and coolers.
  • Avoid intense exertion while exercising during periods when the temperature is too high. You can take regular breaks and relax in cool places.

Since both these problems can turn fatal if left untreated, visit your doctor for a proper analysis and get immediate treatment.

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About the Author

Arushi Bidhuri is a journalist with 7 years of experience in writing, editing, and conceptualizing story ideas across different genres, including health and wellness, lifestyle, politics, beauty, fashion, and more. Arushi has a strong connection in the industry that helps her write concise and original stories as she believes in working towards writing pieces that can enlighten people. ...Read More

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