Last week the phrase heat dome entered our vernacular. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued excessive heat warnings for the Central and Eastern United States, with temperatures expected to exceed 110 degrees fahrenheit into next week. This is also prime time for summer camps, vacations and high school sports practices, which means kids will be outside in this scorching heat. What most people don’t know is that kids of all ages are actually more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses than adults. Kids are at higher risk because they have a larger surface area in comparison to their total weight and because they tend to be less aware of the risks of heat when they’re playing and having fun.
Before we go on, it’s important to keep in mind that we’re talking about external heat-related illnesses, not having a fever. Any elevated internal body temperature is because of a reaction to the heat in the environment, and not an immune system response to an infection. DO NOT give a child with an elevated internal body temperature from a heat-related illness fever-reducing medications like Tylenol. Additionally, we’re not talking about potential skin damage as a result of sun exposure. It’s possible to have a heat-related illness and not have a sunburn and vice versa.
What is Heat-Related Illness?
There are three primary stages of heat-related illnesses, each with increasing severity if not treated at a lower level.
- Heat Cramps| An early sign of a progressing heat illness is muscle cramps. These cramps are usually from exercise in extreme heat combined with not drinking enough fluids.
- Heat Exhaustion | More severe than heat cramps, heat exhaustion will also cause an elevated body temperature. Remember, this elevated internal temperature is not like a typical fever. Other symptoms include sweating, fast but weak pulse, muscle cramps, cold clammy skin, vomiting or nausea and potentially dizziness or fainting. It is important to recognize these signs early and seek treatment because exhaustion will progress to heat stroke if left untreated.
- Heat Stroke | Symptoms include body temperature of 103 or higher along with severe confusion, headache, seizure, loss of consciousness and coma. Patients may have a fast heartbeat and rapid breathing, including shortness of breath. At this point patients are not able to sweat to control their body temperature. This is a life-threatening medical EMERGENCY! CALL 911 IMMEDIATELY.
How Are Heat-Related Illnesses Treated?
The most important thing is to recognize the early symptoms so that the illness does not progress.
- Heat Cramps | The treatment for heat cramps is simply resting in the shade and pushing fluids like water and electrolyte drinks. Sometimes stretching or massage can help alleviate the pain from cramps, but this alone won’t treat the primary cause of the cramps. Once the cramps subside, hold off returning to play or activity in the heat for a few hours.
- Heat Exhaustion | If your child seems to be progressing from cramps to symptoms of exhaustion, apply cool rags to the skin and go indoors for the rest of the day. Make sure they keep drinking fluids. If your child is showing signs of dehydration (dry mouth, cool finger tips, lack of urination) consider taking him/her to the nearest emergency room for IV fluids. If your child has an elevated internal body temperature DO NOT give them a fever reducer like Tylenol. Fever reducers won’t help this type of elevated internal body temperature and they could do more damage.
- Heat Stroke | Once you suspect heat stroke, call 911 IMMEDIATELY! Keep your child cool until help arrives and DO NOT attempt to give fluids by mouth if he/she is starting to lose consciousness.
Giving a child suffering from heat stroke fluids is dangerous. The child could choke on the fluids if they have a seizure or become unconscious. Additionally, giving fluids without the right balance of electrolytes and sodium can do more harm than good.
How Can Heat-Related Illnesses Be Prevented?
Prevention and careful monitoring is extremely important when temperatures rise. Try to keep kids inside in the middle of the day during peak sun. If they are going to be outside, dress them in cool, light clothing and make sure they are wearing sunscreen. Don’t forget hats. Have your kids drink fluids all throughout the day, even when they aren’t thirsty. Water is best, as sports drinks are very sugary and are not necessarily any better than water for hydration. Schedule break times to go indoors or at least rest in the shade. Older kids attending sports practice should gradually start exercising outside to get in shape and acclimate to the heat, but again, keep a close eye on them. Once practice has started, talk to the coach about scheduling breaks and if/when practice will be cancelled due to heat.
Know the signs and stay safe while you’re under the heat dome.