Beat the heat: Essential tips for parents to prevent heat-related illnesses in children

Happy kids playing with garden sprinkler

Amidst the fun and excitement of afternoons and weekends spent outdoors in the summertime, it's crucial to stay vigilant about the risks of heat-related illnesses, especially in children.

Being informed of the signs of heat-related illnesses and prepared to act can make all the difference in ensuring a safe and enjoyable summer.

Understanding heat-related illnesses in children

"Children are especially vulnerable to the effects of the heat because their bodies are still developing the ability to regulate temperature effectively," says Annamarie Koller, DO, pediatric hospitalist, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of the Main Line Health and CHOP affiliation. "This vulnerability can range from minor issues like heat rashes or sunburns to more serious conditions such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which require prompt attention."

Heat exhaustion can sneak up on a child who's too engrossed in play to notice the warning signs, like excessive thirst or fatigue. This condition, if not addressed, can quickly escalate into heat stroke, a critical situation characterized by a high body temperature and potential changes in consciousness.

Factors contributing to these illnesses include:

  • Dehydration
  • Prolonged exposure to high temperatures
  • Overdressing
  • Leaving a child in a hot car

Early signs of heat exhaustion that shouldn't be ignored

Spotting the early signs of heat exhaustion is crucial for preventing more severe heat-related illnesses. Heat exhaustion doesn't always announce itself with glaring alarms, so paying attention to subtler signals is key.

Signs of heat exhaustion can include:

  • Sudden thirst. If your child is asking for water more often than usual during play, it could be their body's attempt to rehydrate and regulate its temperature.
  • Sudden drop in energy. Heat exhaustion can manifest as lethargy or weakness in children, especially those typically energetic and playful. This change could signal that they're not just tired, but their body is fighting the effects of the heat.
  • Dizziness, headaches or nausea. Listen for any complaints about feeling dizzy or experiencing sudden headaches, especially while playing outside in the heat. These are not simple discomforts but rather a signal that your child might be suffering from the heat more than they might express.
  • Muscle cramps. Muscle cramps in children are sudden, painful contractions of muscles that can happen during physical activity or at rest. Dehydration, muscle fatigue, poor circulation and electrolyte imbalances are common causes. Stretching, drinking fluids and replenishing electrolytes can help prevent and relieve muscle cramps.
  • Cool and clammy or hot and dry skin. It might sound counterintuitive, but children often do not sweat as much as adults, so grownups can't use sweating as a marker for heat illness in children. If you notice a sudden change in your child's skin temperature or a change their alertness, think of heat related illness.

Severe heat exhaustion symptoms can include:

  • Vomiting
  • Severe headache
  • Confusion
  • Fatigue
  • Fainting or seizure
  • Rapid breathing or a rapid heartrate

These signs are critical, as they show the body's response to something going significantly awry due to the heat.

Remember, these symptoms can surface subtly and escalate quickly, making it essential to act immediately. Moving your child to a cooler environment, encouraging them to sip water and removing any excess clothing can help reverse the signs of heat exhaustion before it progresses.

The red flags of heat stroke in children

Recognizing the critical signs of heat stroke in children is a pivotal step in safeguarding their well-being during those sweltering summer days. "Heat stroke stands as the most severe form of heat-related illness and warrants immediate action to prevent serious health consequences," says Dr. Koller.

One of the most telling signs of heat stroke is a body temperature soaring above 104°F. This alarming temperature spike is a clear signal that your child's body is overwhelmed by the heat.

If your child shows signs of confusion, agitation or even experiences slurred speech, take note as well. These changes could indicate that the heat is impacting their neurological functions, a situation that calls for immediate intervention.

"The most alarming sign is if your child starts becoming very tired, pale or even loses consciousness, even briefly. This symptom of heat stroke demands urgent medical attention to prevent further complications," says Dr. Koller. "Always err on the side of caution and remember that in situations of heat stroke, every moment counts."

Tips to prevent heat-related illnesses

Some simple yet effective strategies to help prevent heat-related illnesses include:

  • Stay hydrated: It's easy to forget to drink water when you're having fun, but keeping hydration at the forefront is crucial. Encourage your kids to take water breaks every 20-30 minutes, even if they're not thirsty. Popsicles, sports drinks and water ice and other cool treats can help kids stay hydrated while giving them a little energy boost. Sports drinks (like Gatorade) are beneficial for athletic children who are working out or training in the heat.
  • Dress smart: Opt for clothes that are not only stylish but smart for the heat. Choose light-colored garments that reflect rather than absorb the sun's rays. Fabrics that are lightweight and breathable, such as cotton, help keep the body cool and comfortable.
  • Plan outdoor time wisely: Aim to schedule outdoor playtimes during the cooler parts of the day. Early mornings or late afternoons are ideal. Avoiding the midday sun, when it's at its hottest, can help prevent overheating.
  • Sun safety: Sunscreen is your best friend during summer. Apply generously before heading outdoors and reapply after swimming or sweating. A hat with a wide brim and UV-protective sunglasses can also shield your child from the sun's harmful rays.
  • Encourage rest: Remind your children about the importance of taking breaks. Finding a shady spot to relax or going indoors for a bit can help their bodies cool down. This downtime is not only a respite from the heat but also a good opportunity for some quiet play or a refreshing snack.

Adapting to the summer heat doesn't have to dampen the fun. By learning the signs and preparing for heat safety when you're out and about, you're setting the stage for a season filled with delightful memories and safeguarding your family against the risks of heat exposure.

Next steps:

Meet Annamarie Koller, DO
Learn more about pediatric care at Main Line Health
Making the most of vacations with young kids

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