The summer months are a great time for kids to get outside and work off some energy, but high heat and humidity can lead to heat-related illnesses like heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Our bodies are very good at maintaining a consistent internal temperature-usually somewhere around 98.6 degrees. When we get very hot, our bodies cool down by sweating and
by radiating heat through our skin. Heat-related illnesses are caused when the body’s natural cooling systems begin to fail and internal heat builds to dangerous levels. This usually happens after exposure to abnormal or prolonged amounts of heat and humidity without relief or adequate fluid intake. Children are at higher risk for heat-related illnesses because they produce more heat and sweat less than adults, and they tend not to rest or take water breaks when they are having fun.
Heat cramps are painful, but not serious, muscle cramps and spasms, often in the legs during or after intense exercise and sweating in high heat without drinking enough fluids. To treat, cool the child down and give him or her fluids.
Heat exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps. The child may have clammy skin, feel faint, weak, dizzy or confused, have a fever over 102 degrees, a headache, nausea or vomiting. Cool the child down immediately using cool towels, ice, air conditioning or a cool bath. Give lots of fluids (water or sports drinks), but if the child is unable or unwilling to drink, or if symptoms persist, get him to an emergency department right away. If left untreated, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke.
Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate medical attention. The child’s skin will be flushed, warm and dry and the body temperature is usually over 104 degrees. There may be a rapid heart rate, confusion, nausea, vomiting, headache and agitation. Seizures, coma and death are possible. Call 911 and get the child to a cool place. Apply ice bags in the armpits, around the neck and in the groin areas. If the child is alert, offer fluids while you wait.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.