Heat Illnesses

by Sarah Givner, MD, MPH

The summer sun in all its glory gives rise to hot, hot weather and consequently, heat-related illnesses. Heat illnesses are those conditions brought about by prolonged exposure to heat and humidity without adequate hydration to cool the body down. They include heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Children and adolescents adjust to environmental changes more slowly than do adults and tend to bear the brunt of these illnesses.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps are the mildest form of the heat-related illnesses. They are painful spasms and cramps that occur after exercise in high heat conditions. Skin is typically flushed and moist when they occur.

If your child is suffering from heat cramps, stop activity participation, move to a cool, shaded place and rest. Remove excess clothing, fan skin and place cool compresses on the body. Drink chilled sports drinks containing a mixture of salt and sugar (Pedialyte, Gatorade, Powerade) and stretch out the affected muscles gently and slowly.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps and results when the body is unable to cool itself properly. It results from water and salt loss in conditions of extreme heatand excess sweating without adequate fluid and electrolyte re-hydration.

Symptoms include muscle cramps, pale (as opposed to flushed) and moist skin, fever over 100.4 F, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, fatigue, weakness, anxiety and feeling faint.

If your child is suffering from heat exhaustion, again, stop activity participation, move to a cool, shaded place and rest. Remove excess clothing, fan skin and place cool compresses on the body. Drink chilled sports drinks containing a mixture of salt and sugar. If this is insufficient, or your child is unable to keep fluids down, go to the emergency room immediately. IV fluids may be required.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is the most severe of the heat illnesses and occurs when the body’s thermoregulation system is overwhelmed by the extreme heat. It is a life-threatening medical emergency and requires immediate attention.

Symptoms include warm, pale and dry (as opposed to moist) skin, high fever (>104 F), rapid heart rate, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, headache, fatigue, confusion, agitation, lethargy, stupor and seizures.

If you believe your child is suffering from heat stroke, call 911 or your local emergency medical services IMMEDIATELY. In the interim, remove excess clothing, DRENCH skin with cool water and fan skin. Place ice bags under armpits and in the groin. Offer chilled fluids, if your child is alert and able to drink.

Ways to Avoid Heat Illnesses (or as they say, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure)

  • Drink plenty of fluids during both strenuous and non-strenuous (such as sunbathing!) outdoor activities on hot days. Drink water and sports drinks (again with a mix of salts and sugars). Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages (tea, coffee, soda) as they can be dehydrating.
  • Dress in light-colored, lightweight and loose-fitting clothes on hot, humid days
  • Schedule vigorous outdoor activities outside peak sun hours – go in the morning, late afternoon or evening
  • Take shaded (and frequent!) rest brakes
  • Wear sunscreen (at least SPF 15), a hat and sunglasses
  • Have kids mist themselves, go swimming, or play in splash pads during the day

Lastly, enjoy the heat! And be safe!

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