On a hot and sunny summer day, the last thing a child wants to think about is sitting in the shade. Kids produce more heat during activities and sweat less, which is why they are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses, especially on hot, humid days.

Parents can help to avoid heat-related illnesses by making sure their children are wearing the right clothes for hot weather and drinking plenty of water.

Parents should also keep these tips in mind:

  • Keep kids in light colors
  • Wear loose fitting, cotton clothing
  • Wear a wide brim hat, preferably with ventilation
  • Stay hydrated

According to Children’s National Health System’s Joanna Cohen, MD, heat-related illnesses exist on a spectrum, ranging from heat cramps to heat stroke. Below we explain some common heat-related illnesses, along with symptoms and treatment recommendations.

What are heat cramps?

Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat-related illness and the first sign of trouble. Symptoms include:

  • Painful cramps, especially in the legs
  • Moist, flushed skin

If your child is experiencing the effects of heat cramps, there are a few ways to treat them:

  • Move the child to a cool place and rest
  • Remove excess clothing and place cool clothes on the skin (you can fan the skin too)
  • Give the child cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar, such as Gatorade
  • Stretch cramped muscles slowly and gently

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps and happens when water and salt lost from the body through excessive sweating is not replaced with enough fluid. When a child’s body is unable to cool down, he or she may feel these symptoms of heat exhaustion:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Pale, moist skin
  • A fever higher than 100.4°
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Anxiety, and faint feeling

The treatment for heat exhaustion is similar to that for heat cramps, but the fever heightens the need for further medical attention:

  • Move the child to a cool place and rest
  • Remove excess clothing and place cool clothes on the skin (you can fan the skin too)
  • Give the child cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar, such as Gatorade
  • Stretch cramped muscles slowly and gently
  • If there is no improvement or your child is unable to take fluids, call your child’s physician or take your child to an emergency department immediately. IV (intravenous) fluids may be needed.

What is heat stroke?

Heat stroke is the most severe heat-related illness and occurs when the body becomes overwhelmed by excessive heat and can no longer regulate temperature. Dr. Cohen says you can tell when a child is in danger of heat stroke when there is no sweat and the skin is dry. Children experiencing these life-threatening symptoms need medical attention:

  • Warm, dry skin
  • High fever, usually over 104º F
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Confusion
  • Agitation
  • Lethargy
  • Stupor
  • Seizures, coma, and death are possible

If your child is experiencing heat stroke, these are the steps you should take to treat them:

  • Move to a cool place and rest
  • Call 911 or your local emergency medical service. Heat stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency and needs to be treated by a physician
  • Remove excess clothing and drench skin with cool water; fan skin
  • Place ice bags on the armpits and groin areas
  • Offer cool fluids if alert and able to drink

There is a simple rule to help children avoid these heat-related illnesses, courtesy of Children’s Medical Director of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management Daniel Fagbuyi, MD: “Make sure children hydrate before, during and after an activity on extremely hot days.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joanna Cohen Joanna Cohen, MD, is an attending in the emergency department (ED) at Children's National Health System. Her primary research interest includes bedside ultrasonography in the ED.

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