Children's bodies have several natural ways of keeping cool in hot weather, including sweating and heat radiating through the skin. But when these processes begin to fail, in very hot weather or high humidity, several heat-related conditions can occur. These can include heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
Heat cramps can occur during strenuous exercise in hot weather. Symptoms of a heat cramp include brief, painful sensations in the legs, arms or abdomen. Kids are at a high risk for heat cramps if they're dehydrated or not drinking enough fluids.
"Heat cramps can be painful and scary for children, but they're not usually serious," said Brooke Pengel, MD, pediatric sports medicine specialist at Rocky Mountain Pediatric Orthopedics. "However, heat cramps can indicate the warning signs of a more serious heat-related condition, so they shouldn't be ignored."
Treatment for Heat Cramps: If a child is reporting the symptoms of a heat cramp, find them a cool, shady resting place to ease their discomfort. Give the child water or a sports drink to replenish their fluids. Stretching the muscle and gentle massaging can also help relieve pain.
Heat exhaustion is a more severe heat-related condition in kids. It occurs when a child in extremely hot weather is dehydrated and low on fluids.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include:
- Cool, clammy skin
- Cramping muscles
- Elevated body temperature
- Extreme thirst
- Feeling faint
- Nausea and vomiting
Treatment for Heat Exhaustion: If you notice symptoms of heat exhaustion in your child, find them a cool, shady place to rest or take them indoors or into an air-conditioned car. Encourage your child to drink water or a sports drink to replenish their fluids. Place a cool, wet cloth against your child's skin, especially at the neck and wrists. If your child is unable to drink or the symptoms do not resolve, seek treatment from a medical professional immediately.
If left untreated, your child may develop heatstroke, which can be fatal.
Heatstroke is a severe heat-related condition, especially in children. Without immediate treatment, heatstroke can be a life-threatening medical emergency.
Several factors can increase a child's risk for heatstroke, including strenuous physical activity in extremely hot weather, overdressing, and dehydration or inadequate bodily fluids. Heatstroke can also be caused when a child is left, forgotten or accidentally trapped in a car on a hot day. In heatstroke, a child's body cannot regulate temperature, which can rise as high as 106°F (41.1°C) and cause brain damage or death without immediate treatment.
Several symptoms can indicate heatstroke. including:
- Flushed, dry skin
- Loss of consciousness
- Not sweating
- Rapid heart rate and breathing
- Severe headache
Treatment for heat stroke: If your child has been in an environment with extreme temperatures and shows any of these symptoms, seek emergency medical attention immediately. While you're waiting for help to arrive, move your child to the coolest available place, including air conditioning or the shade. Remove excess clothing and apply cool water to your child's skin.
Prevent heat-related conditions before they occur
By taking some simple steps, your can help your child avoid heat-related conditions:
- Educate your child on the importance of staying hydrated and drinking fluids during exercise, especially in hot or extremely hot weather. Help your child understand that they should drink water regularly during physical activity, even if they don't feel thirsty.
- Dress your child for success. During outdoor activities in hot weather, your child should wear loose, light-colored clothing and sunscreen on any exposed skin.
- Limit the time periods your child participates in strenuous outdoor activities during hot weather. It's best to limit this to the cooler parts of the day, before noon or after 6 p.m.
- Teach kids to cool off, rest, hydrate and tell an adult if they feel overheated.
"A few easy steps can keep your child safe from heat-related conditions," said Brooke Pengel, MD, pediatric sports medicine specialist at Rocky Mountain Pediatric Orthopedics. "Reminding your child to hydrate and take breaks can potentially prevent a serious medical emergency."