by Heidi Green
July 18, 2012
Staying cool can be a real challenge during the dog days of summer. As temperatures soar, as humidity rises, and we engage in vigorous outdoor activity, the risk of heat-related illness—heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or heatstroke—rises too. The risk is even greater for children, whose bodies overheat 3–5 times more quickly than adults. Children may not understand cautions to “stay hydrated,” and they may be more susceptible to conditions that typically wouldn’t cause health problems at other times of the year.
To keep your family safe from heat-related illnesses, you need to know what they are and what causes them. Read on to learn more about how to identify these illnesses, what you can do if your child is affected, and what you can do to keep them from happening in the first place.
Heat cramps. Children may experience painful cramps throughout their body as a result of high activity in extreme heat. Sweating causes a loss of fluid and electrolytes. If the fluids and salts are not replaced, children develop muscle cramps. Fortunately, heat cramps can be easily treated, by moving your child to a cool, shaded place to rest and giving him fluids.
Heat exhaustion. Also the result of a lack of fluids, heat exhaustion is a more serious heat-related illness. Symptoms can include: dehydration; fatigue; weakness; clammy skin; headache; nausea; vomiting; rapid breathing; and irritability. Heat exhaustion should be treated promptly; if left untreated, it can quickly escalate into heatstroke. Get your child indoors or, if that’s not possible, into the shade. Loosen or remove your child’s clothing, and give him something to drink and eat. Bathe your child in cool (not cold) water. You will want to monitor your child’s body temperature; cooling strategies should continue until his body temperature reaches about 101 degrees F. Your child may need to go to the hospital if he is so affected by heat exhaustion that he is unable to eat or drink; rehydration is essential, and IV fluids may be necessary.
Heatstroke. Heatstroke is a life-threatening medical emergency in which the body is unable to regulate its temperature. Symptoms include: flushed, hot, dry skin without sweating; temperature of 104 degrees F or higher; severe, throbbing headache; weakness, dizziness, or confusion; fatigue; seizure; unresponsiveness; loss of consciousness. If your child shows signs of heatstroke, call 911 immediately. While waiting for help, get your child indoors or into the shade. Remove your child’s clothing, and douse him with cool or tepid water (such as from a garden hose). Fan him, to promote sweating and evaporation. If available, place ice packs around the groin, neck, and armpits—areas where large blood vessels are close to the skin surface. Do not immerse your child in an ice bath. There is a high risk of choking if you give your child fluids, but if you can safely do so, sit him up and try to give him small sips.
Preventing heat-related illness
It is impossible to know the full extent of heat-related illness, since many cases go unreported. Heat cramps and heat exhaustion, for example, are typically treated at home. But given the influence of climate change, some experts have suggested that the incidence of heatstroke and related fatalities will become more prevalent.
To prevent heat-related illness in your children:
Heidi Green has been researching and writing about women’s and children health since she moved to Pittsburgh more than 10 years ago. She is also a children’s book reviewer in her spare time. She is mom to Ben, Katie, Sam, and Max.
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