A few years ago, my family moved to southern Nevada for my husband’s grad program. We moved in the early summer months, right as daily temperatures were approaching triple digits. Our car had no AC, and we were now living in a city that experienced extreme heat waves for more than half of the year. We quickly learned of the realities and dangers of excessive heat, especially for young children. Whether your local temperatures soar over 100° F on a daily basis or they remain in the mid-80’s, it’s important to be educated on ways to protect your kids from heat-related injuries during these summer months!
Types of Heat-Related Injuries
The hypothalamus is the portion of the brain that helps a person regulate their body temperature. For adults with fully developed brains, our bodies are able to adjust more rapidly to changes in temperature. Young kids, on the other hand, have brains that are still developing. As a result, mechanisms such as body regulation are inefficient. In the cold months they lose heat quickly, while overheating at fast rates during the summer!
Overheating can lead to several different injuries in children, such as heat rash, heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. All of these can be caused by exertion (exercise/playtime) or from simply being in a hot, enclosed environment, like a car, for too long. No matter the cause, being able to identify symptoms of each of these heat-related injuries early on is essential.
Heat Cramps: This is normally the least severe of heat related injuries. Your child may start to get flushed or experience cramping or spasming in the legs, but it can also occur in other muscles throughout the body.
Heat Exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps. Symptoms often include headaches, clammy skin, nausea, muscle cramps, extreme thirst, irritability, dizziness, increased sweating, and a rise in internal body temperature. If your child is experiencing these symptoms, you need to treat them immediately before it turns into heat stroke. Cool them down with a cold compress and remove them from the hot environment, offer them a drink, and massage their muscles.
Heat Stroke: The most severe heat-related injury is heat stroke. Heat stroke occurs when your child’s body is trapping heat that it cannot effectively release. As a result, their internal body temperature continues to rise. If left untreated, brain damage or death can occur. Symptoms often include loss of consciousness, high body temperatures (over 103° F), nausea or vomiting, rapid heart rate, fast breathing, seizures, weakness, confusion, and hot, dry skin. If you think your child is experiencing heat stroke, you need to act immediately, as this is a medical emergency. Call 911, bring them indoors, remove any clothing, and give them a cold bath or shower. If you are not home, use cold water and towels to cool down the body as much as possible while you wait for help to arrive.
Heat Rash: Heat rash is another common injury in the summertime. When a child gets overheated, sweat glands are activated. If a duct is inflamed or blocked, the sweat gets trapped under the skin. Little red blisters or bumps can form across the surface of the skin. If this occurs, try not to worry, as it will go away on its own. You can take a cool shower and stay in a cool environment to help aid in the recovery.
Similar to overheating, kids can become dehydrated very quickly. Watch for signs of dehydration, such as fewer bathroom breaks or wet diapers, dry lips, and fatigue. If your child is severely dehydrated, contact your doctor. Most often, you will give your child something like Pedialyte. In extreme cases, you may need to go to the emergency room for IV fluids.
Sun burns are one of the most common summertime injuries! We’ve all had a bad sunburn before, and they flat out hurt! Children have overly sensitive skin, so it’s so important we keep them out of the sun during the hottest times of day and lather up on sunscreen! Kids can also be burned from outdoor surfaces that get too hot, so be aware of what your children sit on or touch that could burn them.
Protecting Your Kids from Heat-Related Injuries
1. Observe Car Safety
We all know how uncomfortable it can be getting into our car after it’s been outside for several hours. However, the interior of your car gets a lot hotter than you may realize. In a research study released in 2018, researchers found that on a 95°F day, the internal temperature of cars parked in direct sunlight reached an average 116 degrees, with seats hitting 123 degrees and the dashboard reaching a whopping 157 degrees (on average). Cars parked in the shade didn’t hit quite the extremes as those parked in direct sun, but still reached dangerous temperatures. Even with your air blasting, your kids can start to develop heat-related injuries in the back seat of the car. Here are my favorite ways to keep kids cool in the car, as well as some other safety tips you may want to be aware of:
Use car seat coolers: A friend of mine recently posted online about an ice pack holder that could be placed in the car seat when you are away from your car to keep the seat and buckles cool. When you return to your car, simply remove the pouch and put your child in their seat like normal. The seat remains cool, keeping kids more comfortable on your summer outings. Here’s an awesome DIY car seat cooler I used as inspiration to make my own, or you can buy from this cute small business.
Buy a car seat with a light colored fabric: Black tends to absorb and trap heat, while lighter colors such as white tend to reflect light and do not absorb as much heat. Some car seats also have padding made of moisture-wicking fabrics!
Park in the shade: If possible, park in a shady spot! It won’t keep your car from getting hot, but it will keep the temperatures down to some extent.
Tint windows and use car window covers: Many cars these days come with tinted windows. If you have an old car like me, this may not be the case. Luckily, you can buy covers to put in your windshield and attach to your side windows to help shield some of that heat.
Use fans: Stroller fans and handheld misting fans are my favorite. Kids find them fun to use and allow them to get some air flow when the AC is taking a while to reach them in the back seat.
Check your backseat & keep your car locked: Kids love to play and explore, and it’s very possible that they could climb into the car without you noticing. You would hate to drive off to run an errand and not realize your child is quietly hiding in the backseat! This is why it’s important to always know where your children are and who is watching them, double check your back seats, and keep your car locked so that children cannot climb in when it’s not in use. Some recommend placing an essential item (such as your purse) in the backseat of your car so you have to check the backseat before driving away.
Educate your children on car safety: Teach kids how to unbuckle their own car seats and honk the horn if they ever get locked in a hot car. Remind them to never get into the car without you and that it is never a place to play.
2. Protect your Skin
There are so many ways to protect your own and your kids’ skin from harsh UV rays! Remember to stay indoors during the middle of the day (between 10 am and 4 pm). This is when your child is in the most direct sunlight, and they are likely to get sunburned. Sunburns can be extremely damaging and painful, especially for little ones! Remember to apply sunscreen liberally and often, and stay in the shade if you can. If there's no shade trees near you, consider setting up a small tent or shelter, and always wear hats and sunglasses. Separate outdoor playtime into shorter fragments to avoid long periods of sun exposure. Read more about protecting your skin here!
3. Rest & Rehydrate Often
Kids don’t always realize when they are beginning to overheat. They may get distracted, or may not want to stop and rest because they're having too much fun. Keep an eye on your children, and remind them to rest and rehydrate often! Offer snacks that will provide them with plenty of nutrients. Take breaks from outdoor playtime and schedule downtime to give your child an opportunity to relax and recharge.
4. Check Surface Temperatures and Wear Shoes
Anything that’s left out in the sun can get hot. Things like toys, playgrounds, and trampolines can get scalding hot, so always check surfaces before playing. Before placing your child on a slide, for example, feel it with your hand to ensure they will not get burned.
Cement gets extremely hot as well, so always check to make sure your kids are wearing their shoes at all times. This will help prevent burns on the bottom of their feet. (If you have a dog, remember the bottoms of their feet are extra sensitive as well! So be oh so careful on those sidewalks!)
5. Stay Cool!
One of the best ways to avoid heat related injuries is to just stay cool when you’re outside!
- Stay in the shade
- Go inside frequently to cool off in the AC
- Take fans with you on walks and to the park
- Go to the pool, turn on your sprinklers, or have a water balloon fight
- Dress kids in light, airy clothing to prevent overheating
- Eat popsicles, get a snow cone, drink some lemonade, or devour an ice cream cone
As a kid, I always looked forward to summer. But with summer comes the hot, hot sun. No matter what fun plans you have this summer with your kids, remember to be educated and prepared. That way you and your kids can enjoy summertime like it’s meant to be enjoyed.