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Protecting kids against heat stroke and exhaustion Children's Wisconsin

Beat the heat: How to spot and prevent heat exhaustion in kids

One of my favorite prescriptions to give families is to get outside and enjoy some activity and fresh air, especially as the weather gets warmer. Along with the typical precautions of sunscreen and helmets for bike riding, families should be aware of the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke. 

As we wrap up a cold and gray spring (what spring?!), it’s hard to even imagine that heat exhaustion or heat stroke could be a possibility. But when the heat index goes above 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it becomes a big risk, especially for little kids, who have an increased risk of heat illness. 

High temperatures can cause children to become sick very quickly in a few different ways. Examples include dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat cramps. High heat can also contribute to irritability both for children and their caregivers. Heat stroke, where the body’s high temperature causes injury to its cells, is a medical emergency. 

Let’s take a look at how to spot the symptoms and prevent heat-related illnesses in your child, and what to do if you think your child is experiencing this. 

Here are the symptoms to look for if you suspect your child is suffering from heat exhaustion:

  • Feeling faint

  • Extreme tiredness (unusually sleepy, drowsy or hard to rouse)

  • Headache

  • Fever

  • Intense thirst

  • Not urinating for many hours

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Breathing faster or deeper than normal

  • Skin numbness or tingling

  • Muscle aches or spasms

If your child shows any of these heat exhaustion symptoms, get them indoors or out of the sun, even if it's just into the shade. You can help cool them off by wetting the skin or removing layers of clothing, and by gradually rehydrating with cool water or an electrolyte drink. If your child doesn’t appear to improve in about 20-30 minutes, call your pediatrician for how best to proceed. If your child is in distress, call 911. 

But good news! There are some safer (and fun!) ways to enjoy hot days. Here are a few tips to beat the heat: 

Hydrate…often. Encourage your children to drink water frequently and have it readily available, offering it before they ask. If you’re on the go, make sure to bring water bottles. You can even fill them with lots of ice to keep it cold. Sports drinks can be useful if your child participates in prolonged, vigorous sports. On hot days, infants receiving breast milk in a bottle can be given additional breast milk, but they should not be given water, especially in the first 6 months of life. Infants receiving formula can be given additional formula. But really keep an eye on infants in the heat, especially since they can’t tell you they are overheating.

Take it easy. Heat can often make children (and their parents) feel tired. It may also contribute to irritability. Come inside regularly to cool off, rest and drink water. When kids are playing sports, they should take a break to drink every 20 minutes.

Cool off. When your child is feeling hot, give them a cool bath, a cold, wet washcloth to wipe down with or water mist to cool down. 

Dress lightly. Dress your children in clothing that is light-colored, lightweight and limited to one layer of absorbent material that will maximize the evaporation of sweat. Kids have a lower capacity for sweating than adults. As always, be sure to use plenty of sunscreen.

Car safety. Never leave your child in a car. The inside of a car can become dangerously hot in a very short amount of time, even with the windows open. Sadly, every year we hear of preventable deaths in hot cars. Be extra vigilant when running errands with your kids. 

So what can you do on a hot day? 

Run around, refuel, rest. I know, especially in summer, kids want to be with their friends. Going outside is still okay when it’s hot, but encourage kids to play in shaded areas whenever possible. Send them out with ample sunscreen and make sure to call them in for frequent hydration and rest breaks. 

Swimming. Swimming is another great way to cool off while staying active. Remember that children should always be supervised while swimming or playing in water to prevent drowning. My colleague wrote this blog post on swimming safety

Reading. Summer reading is important so kids don’t experience the “summer slide.” Set aside time, especially in the hot afternoon, for kids to keep up on their favorite books. Libraries offer a break from the heat and a way to encourage reading. Many libraries offer summer book clubs and other activities for kids and adults. And the best part, libraries are free!

Fun at home. Here are a few ideas for fun at home.

  • Keep a craft box stocked with art supplies for those days it’s too hot to go out. 
  • Make popsicles using a few of your favorite fruits. I’ve seen parents who blend watermelon and berries and maybe even a little yogurt for texture. There are lots of recipes available online. You can easily find molds for popsicles online or at the store. 

I love summer and spending time outside. Just remember on hot days to take precautions. If you have any questions about heat exhaustion or anything else related to your child’s health and well-being, call your pediatrician and we’ll make sure kiddos are safe and healthy.