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Child & Teen Health
When hot gets too hot: keeping children safe in the heat
- By 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
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.
About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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