When hot gets too hot: keeping children safe in the heat

Claire McCarthy, MD

Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing

Follow me on Twitter @drClaire

Heat is part of summer — and for the most part, children do fine in the heat. But sometimes, heat can be dangerous, even deadly. As summer heats up — and as much of the country sits in a heat wave — it’s important to know about those dangers so that you can keep children safe. Here’s what you need to know about heat and children:

Never leave a child in a car in the heat. Children’s bodies can heat up incredibly quickly — leading to damage to organs and even death. Every year children die from being in a hot car — because their caregiver thought they would be fine, because an errand took longer than expected, or because the driver simply forgot they were there. There is no safe time or safe temperature when it comes to leaving children in cars, so never do it (it’s not safe to leave a child in the car for other reasons, too). And always, always do a check of the back seat before you leave a car. The very best people can get distracted and forgetful. The American Academy of Pediatrics has some very useful information about preventing child deaths in hot cars on their website for parents.

Know the signs of heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion is what can happen to the body when it gets overheated, especially if there is dehydration as well. It’s more common when temperatures get over 90 degrees, and when the humidity is over 60% as this makes it harder for sweat to evaporate and cool the body, but it can happen at lower temperatures and lower humidity when you are in direct sunshine or very active. Some of the symptoms of heat exhaustion include:

  • Muscle cramping
  • Excessive sweating
  • Cold, clammy skin
  • Dizziness or weakness
  • Fast pulse
  • Vomiting

If your child has any of these, get them out of the sun, have them lie down, cool them off with cool water, and get them to drink (nothing with caffeine), making sure they take little sips at a time. If they still complain of dizziness or keep vomiting, bring them to an emergency room.

Heat stroke is an emergency: know the signs and know what to do

Heat stroke is an emergency. Heat stroke is what kills those children in cars, and it truly is a medical emergency. You should suspect heat stroke if the child’s skin is hot and dry rather than cold and sweaty, if their temperature is very high, or if they are excessively sleepy — or unconscious. If this happens, call 911 and get the child to a cool place and cool them down with cool water. If they are sleepy, don’t try to get them to drink as they may not be able to do so safely.

Here are some general tips to keep children safe in the heat

  • Limit time in direct sunlight (especially during midday hours). Look for shade, or make your own with umbrellas, tents, or wide-brimmed hats
  • Bring water along whenever you are going to be outside in the sun — for drinking as well as putting on the skin to cool down
  • Keep an eye on the forecast as you plan outdoor activities, especially active ones; check the temperature and the humidity, and plan accordingly
  • Take plenty of rest breaks and use them as a chance to check to see how everyone is doing with the heat. Every child is different; some may be fine when others are getting into trouble.


  1. Ram Mathur

    Great advice Dr. McCarthy and thank you. It is timely as well. One should never become a prey of heat stroke. It is so easily avoidable. However,kids do not know all that and that’s where we come in to protect them. Everybody should read this blog!

  2. Dan Mimis

    After 22 kids died trapped in hot cars in Israel the Transportation Ministry was called “to require parents of children up to the age of six to install TECHNOLOGY that would prevent children from being inadvertently left in a vehicle.”
    In America, after 760 kids have been baked alive trapped in hot cars (since 1990) those in charge recommend stuffed animals as reminders (in the 21st Century!); it’s just mind blowing! And the most reliable and affordable technological solution, designed in America – is completely ignored …

    It’s high time we stop the slaughter of our kids and pets but those in charge (politicians, DOT, NHTSA, child protection agencies and the like) adamantly refuse to a TECHNOLOGICAL SOLUTION …

    I am willing to collaborate with anybody interested in developing the Patent Pending never4get.us since SOLVING a problem is infinitely better than WHINING about it.

Commenting has been closed for this post.