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Heat-related Illnesses

By Kelli Shidler, M.D.

Heat Stroke image

As the summer days heat up, it is important to monitor your child's outdoor activities to avoid heat-related illnesses. When the temperature rises, a child is likely to sweat excessively and lose a lot of water. This loss of water can lead to dangerous conditions, including heatstroke (sunstroke), heat exhaustion and heat cramps.

Symptoms of Heatstroke

  • A fever of at least 104 F
  • Unconsciousness or delirium
  • Flushed skin that is hot to the touch
  • Fast heart rate
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

The child may or may not be sweating. When heatstroke is brought on by high temperatures alone, the skin is often hot and dry. However, if the heatstroke is a result of strenuous exercise, skin will likely feel moist.

What to do if a Child has Heatstroke

Although a fever of 104 F is not life threatening, the appearance of any of the previously mentioned symptoms is cause for concern. If you notice one or more signs of heatstroke, call for an ambulance and contact a physician immediately. It is essential that you cool down your child right away. If the child is wearing any excess clothing, remove it. Move the child to a cool place, sponging the skin with cool water or ice packs and fanning her body.

If your child is conscious, have her drink at least one glass of cold water every 15 minutes until an ambulance arrives.

Symptoms of Heat Exhaustion

  • Skin may be cool and pale with goosebumps
  • Sweating
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Weakness
  • Nausea
  • Headache

With heat exhaustion, the child may or may not have a fever.

What to do if a Child has Heat Exhaustion

In the event of heat exhaustion, call a physician immediately. Have your child lie down in a cool place and encourage her to drink a cold glass of water every 15 minutes until she feels better. Most likely, your child's doctor will want to examine her right away to be sure she is appropriately hydrated.

Symptoms of Heat Cramps

  • Intense pain in a specific location
  • Muscles are visibly contracted and feel hard
  • Muscle spasms

Symptoms may appear during or after intense physical exertion in warm and humid climates.

What to do if a Child has Heat Cramps

If your child has heat cramps, have her cease physical activity immediately. In the shade or an air conditioned room, extend and stretch or massage the effected muscle(s). Give the child water or a sports drink with electrolytes. (Though sports drinks are not usually recommended, heat cramps are caused by dehydration and a lack of salt, so your child may need something more than water to cease and prevent painful muscle contractions.)

You do not need to contact a doctor unless the cramps persist for more than an hour.

Prevent Heat-related Illnesses

To avoid heat-related illness while spending time in the heat, Boys Town Pediatrics suggests wearing light-weight and light-colored clothing, taking cold water breaks in the shade every half hour and changing clothing when it becomes wet with perspiration. In addition, limit exercise to short periods of time when temperatures rise above 82 F. Electrolyte beverages, such as Gatorade, are often not needed unless your child has been exercising for over an hour.