Mechanisms of Heat Exchange


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OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology

When the environment is not thermoneutral, the body uses four mechanisms of heat exchange to maintain homeostasis: conduction, convection, radiation, and evaporation. Each of these mechanisms relies on the property of heat to flow from a higher concentration to a lower concentration; therefore, each of the mechanisms of heat exchange varies in rate according to the temperature and conditions of the environment.

Conduction is the transfer of heat by two objects that are in direct contact with one another. It occurs when the skin comes in contact with a cold or warm object. For example, when holding a glass of ice water, the heat from your skin will warm the glass and in turn melt the ice. Alternatively, on a cold day, you might warm up by wrapping your cold hands around a hot mug of coffee. Only about 3 percent of the body’s heat is lost through conduction.

Convection is the transfer of heat to the air surrounding the skin. The warmed air rises away from the body and is replaced by cooler air that is subsequently heated. Convection can also occur in water. When the water temperature is lower than the body’s temperature, the body loses heat by warming the water closest to the skin, which moves away to be replaced by cooler water. The convection currents created by the temperature changes continue to draw heat away from the body more quickly than the body can replace it, resulting in hyperthermia. About 15 percent of the body’s heat is lost through convection.

Radiation is the transfer of heat via infrared waves. This occurs between any two objects when their temperatures differ. A radiator can warm a room via radiant heat. On a sunny day, the radiation from the sun warms the skin. The same principle works from the body to the environment. About 60 percent of the heat lost by the body is lost through radiation.

Evaporation is the transfer of heat by the evaporation of water. Because it takes a great deal of energy for a water molecule to change from a liquid to a gas, evaporating water (in the form of sweat) takes with it a great deal of energy from the skin. However, the rate at which evaporation occurs depends on relative humidity—more sweat evaporates in lower humidity environments. Sweating is the primary means of cooling the body during exercise, whereas at rest, about 20 percent of the heat lost by the body occurs through evaporation.


Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax.

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