Preventing Heat Stroke in Kids
Children are at particular risk for heat stroke during the summer. Learn about the symptoms of heat stroke and what you can do to prevent problems.
By Connie Brichford
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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When your body temperature rises so high that it makes you sick — even threatens your life — that's called heat stroke. It’s a serious condition that can also affect children.
Ken Haller, MD, an associate professor of pediatrics at Saint Louis University School of Medicine, says that while children have a high risk for heat stroke, banning outdoor activity is not the answer. “We definitely want to encourage children to be active and get plenty of exercise, even in the summer," Dr. Haller says.
But children often aren’t mindful of their own safety — especially when they’re having a good time playing. That’s why you need to know what can happen if they become overheated.
Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke
Usually, we keep ourselves cool by sweating. Heat stroke develops when we become too dehydrated to perspire. Our bodies start to heat up when we can’t sweat.
But heat stroke doesn’t just happen; first there are warning signs. Heat exhaustion comes first, with symptoms that range from nausea and vomiting to fatigue and muscle cramps.
You’ll know heat stroke has set in if your child:
- Develops a headache
- Feels dizzy
- Acts disoriented, agitated, or confused, even hallucinates
- Becomes tired
- Has a seizure
- Has skin that is hot, dry, and flushed, but not sweaty
- Develops a high body temperature
As you can see, heat stroke isn’t something to take lightly.
Why Children Are at Risk for Heat Stroke
A few factors can put kids at risk for heat stroke, says Haller. “In the summer, kids tend to be more active and naturally exuberant," he says. "They don’t realize they need to slow down and drink fluids.”
They also have smaller bodies “so they have a higher ratio of surface area to their total mass,” he says. Translation: “Small people can sweat out a lot of their body water in a shorter amount of time," he says.
And don’t be fooled just because it’s a cloudy day. While sun can definitely be a factor in heat stroke, Haller cautions that kids can still work up a sweat even in the shade if the day is hot enough.
Urging Fluids to Prevent Dehydration and Heat Stroke
So how do you prevent heat stroke? In part, by preventing dehydration.
“It’s important for parents to have their kids take breaks and drink fluids,” says Haller. Water is usually good enough, and the occasional electrolyte solution, like Gatorade, is not a bad idea.”
Haller also notes that taking a break, whether inside or in the shade, can be helpful. And, if they are busy drinking water, your young charges are not heating themselves up by running around. Taking a break gives their small bodies time to cool down.
Find Out if Heat Stroke Danger Is Present
How do you know if kids might be dehydrated? It’s simple: Watch their urine output, says Haller. If it’s been several hours since their last trip to the bathroom, it tells you that they are not drinking enough. When in doubt, Haller recommends the direct approach: “Just ask, 'When was the last time you peed?' If the number of hours is high, six hours or so, that’s a sign of dehydration.”
If you suspect that your child — or anyone, for that matter — is suffering from heat stroke:
- Call a doctor.
- Take the child to a cool, shady place.
- Remove any unnecessary clothing to help cool down the child.
- Fan warm air over the child while wetting the skin with lukewarm water. This also will help in the cooling-down process.
The good news about heat stroke is that it is usually preventable. Remember to keep plenty of water on hand — and make sure your youngsters drink it.
Video: Basic First Aid Tips : How to Treat a Heat Stroke
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