Extreme Heat and Other Summer Safety Concerns

We’re all susceptible to the dangers of extreme heat. An expert from the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s shares tips for keeping cool.

Scientists warn that the earth is heating up. Even in our northern climate, we’re experiencing some of that extreme heat as our summer temperatures soar. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says a series of unusually hot days is considered an extreme heat event. Extreme heat is more than just uncomfortable; it kills hundreds of Americans each year.

Chicagoland parents should be aware of extreme heat, especially when their children play outside and attend day camps and sports camps. Chicago’s urban environment can also become a “heat island,” or an area with higher temperatures because of the density of people, buildings and roads. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the heat island effect means daytime temperatures in urban areas can be as much as seven degrees higher than in areas with natural landscapes.

Protecting children from extreme heat

Experts at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s want parents to be aware of the potential dangers that exist during the hot summer months. The top heat-related medical issues Chicagoans face include heat stroke, heat exhaustion, heat cramps, loss of consciousness due to heat, sunburn and heat rash, according to information from UChicago Medicine.

Alison Tothy, M.D., Chief Experience and Engagement Officer and Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Department at Comer Children’s. Photo credit: UChicago Medicine

One of the easiest ways to keep your children safe is to never leave them in the car. Even if the summer day is a cooler one, “cars can be more than 30 degrees warmer inside than the outside air,” says Alison Tothy, M.D., Chief Experience and Engagement Officer and Associate Professor of Pediatrics in the Pediatric Emergency Medicine Department at Comer Children’s. Brain damage and death can occur quickly.

Dr. Tothy says the majority of heat stroke cases in the emergency department result from children being left in the car. “Do not leave your children in the car waiting for you,” she says.

Even if you don’t deliberately leave your child in the car, you could make this mistake. According to advocacy organization noheatstroke.org, more than 52% of heatstroke deaths since 1998 occurred when the driver simply forgot the child was in the car. Safety experts suggest leaving something that you need, like your purse or even one of your shoes, in the back seat so you are forced to look for that item before leaving your car.

Ways to keep cool

Seek air conditioning on hot days, even for a short period of time, suggests Dr. Tothy. “If possible, stay in an air-conditioned area during the hottest hours of the day. If you don’t have air conditioning in your home, go to a public place such as a shopping mall or a library to stay cool.”

Fans and cool washcloths can help, too. And don’t forget to drink water. “You should not wait until you are thirsty to hydrate,” she says.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to a swimming pool or are headed to Lake Michigan to cool off, be sure to supervise children carefully. In children ages 1 to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury-related death and the single leading cause of death of children ages 1-4. If you’re in a group, designate one adult to pay attention to children in the water.

“If it is your turn to watch the swimmer, this means putting down a phone, book or any other potential distraction,” says Dr. Tothy.

When to seek medical help

Overheating can happen easily, as can sunburn, says Dr. Tothy. It’s a smart practice for everyone in your family to wear sunscreen, regardless of skin tone. If you do experience sunburn, Dr. Tothy suggests a cool bath and sunburn-specific moisturizer to ease the pain.

If you or your child is exposed to extreme heat and begins to experience symptoms, seek medical help right away. According to Dr. Tothy, even if the symptoms are mild but last more than an hour, call your doctor or get medical care.

Here are the symptoms to look out for:

  • High body temperature (103 degrees Fahrenheit or higher)
  • Hot, red or dry skin, or skin that is damp to the touch
  • Headache, dizziness or confusion
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Severe muscle cramping
  • Loss of consciousness

Expertise brought to you by UChicago Medicine Comer Children’s. Visit uchicagomedicine.org/comer.

Claire Charlton
Claire Charlton
An enthusiastic storyteller, Claire Charlton focuses on delivering top client service as a content editor for Chicago Parent. In her 20+ years of experience, she has written extensively on a variety of topics and is keen on new tech and podcast hosting. Claire has two grown kids and loves to read, run, camp, cycle and travel.


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