The dangers of heat-related illnesses

Staying cool can be a real challenge during the dog days of summer. As temperatures soar and we engage in vigorous outdoor activity, the risk of heat-related illness also rises. The risk is even greater for children, whose bodies overheat 3–5 times more quickly than adults. 

To keep your family safe from heat-related illnesses, learn the warning signals, what to do if your child is affected, and most importantly, how to prevent them from happening in the first place. 

Heat-related illnesses

Heat cramps. Children may experience painful cramps throughout their body as a result of high activity in extreme heat. Sweating causes a loss of fluid and electrolytes. If the fluids and salts are not replaced, children develop muscle cramps. Fortunately, heat cramps can be easily treated, by moving your child to a cool, shaded place to rest and giving him fluids.

Heat exhaustion (hyperthermia). Also the result of a lack of fluids, heat exhaustion is a more serious heat-related illness. Symptoms can include:

  • dehydration 
  • fatigue 
  • weakness 
  • clammy skin 
  • headache 
  • nausea 
  • vomiting 
  • rapid breathing 
  • irritability

Heat exhaustion should be treated promptly; if left untreated, it can quickly escalate into heatstroke. Get your child indoors or, if that’s not possible, into the shade. Loosen or remove your child’s clothing, and give him something to drink and eat. Bathe your child in cool (not cold) water. You will want to monitor your child’s body temperature; cooling strategies should continue until his body temperature reaches about 101°F. Consider applying cold packs to your child’s cheeks, hands, and feet. Your child may need to go to the hospital if he is so affected by heat exhaustion that he is unable to eat or drink; rehydration is essential, and IV fluids may be necessary.

Heatstroke. Heatstroke is a life-threatening medical emergency in which the body is unable to regulate its temperature. Symptoms include:

  • flushed, hot, dry skin without sweating 
  • temperature of 104°F or higher 
  • severe, throbbing headache 
  • weakness, dizziness, or confusion 
  • fatigue 
  • seizure 
  • unresponsiveness 
  • loss of consciousness

If your child shows signs of heatstroke, call 911 immediately. While waiting for help, get your child indoors or into the shade. Remove your child’s clothing, and douse him with cool or tepid water (such as from a garden hose). Fan him, to promote sweating and evaporation. Place ice packs around the groin, neck, and armpits—areas where large blood vessels are close to the skin surface. This is not a substitute for medical attention; placement of cold packs is not going to reduce your child’s temperature quickly enough, and these are only interim measures. Do not immerse your child in an ice bath. There is a high risk of choking if you give your child fluids, but if you can safely do so, sit him up and try to give him small sips.

Preventing heat-related illness

It is impossible to know the full extent of heat-related illness, since many cases go unreported. Heat cramps and heat exhaustion, for example, are typically treated at home. But given the influence of climate change, some experts have suggested that the incidence of heatstroke and related fatalities will become more prevalent.

To prevent heat-related illness in your children:

  • Never leave your child alone in a hot car, even for a few minutes. In 2019, 53 U.S. children died from car-related heatstroke. Temperatures inside a car can climb dangerously high very quickly, even with the windows open. And infants and small children are not able to regulate their body temperature in the same way that adults do.
  • Think “Where’s baby? Look before you lock.” It may sound like common sense but one of the best ways to help prevent child deaths from heatstroke in cars is to always check your car—front and back seats—before locking the door and walking away. Another good tip: place something you will need at your last stop (i.e., a cell phone, laptop bag, purse) next to the child or under his feet, so that you must check the back seat before you leave the car. 
  • Be aware of routine changes. Since car-related heatstroke tends to happen when parents or caregivers change their routine and forget a child, ask your childcare provider to call if your child has not shown up within 10 minutes of their usual arrival time.
  • Always lock your car when it is not in use. The second leading cause of heatstroke deaths among children in the U.S. is when an unattended child gets into an unlocked vehicle (such as when playing Hide-and-Seek). Always thoroughly check your car before locking it and lock it when it’s not in use.
  • Remind kids to drink plenty of fluids. Before playing outside, children should drink freely and not feel thirsty. During activities less than one hour, water alone is fine. Kids should always have water or a sports drink available and take a break to drink every 20 minutes while active in the heat.
  • Keep infants hydrated. Infants get all the hydration they need from breast milk or formula. Generally, babies should not be given water until they are at least 6 months old, and up to 1 year of age. Once babies are consuming a variety of foods, in addition to breast milk or formula, giving your baby small sips of water in a cup is safe. 
  • Dress children for the weather. Light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and hats are the best protection against the sun and heat. 
  • Don't overbundle infants. Even indoors, infants may be susceptible to heatstroke if they are over-bundled (dressed or wrapped in too many layers of clothing or swaddling). The ideal room temperature for babies is between 68°F and 72°F . Dress your infant for the room temperature and use your own clothing comfort needs as gauge. Also, watch for signs of overheating, such as sweating or feeling hot to the touch.
  • Avoid the sun during the hottest part of the day. Skip vigorous outside activity during the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Stay in the shade, when possible, and pack healthy snacks that include plenty of fluids.
  • Teach kids to be aware of how they feel. Tell your children why it’s important to recognize when they feel overheated. Remind them that if they feel overheated, they should take a break, come indoors or find shade, and get a drink right away.

Click here to learn more about the dangers of leaving children in cars.

Last updated December 27, 2020

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