Beat the Heat: Avoiding Hyperthermia

Published on 
August 22, 2011

By Branden Turner Pediatric Injury Prevention Scholar Trauma Program

Now that June gloom is long gone and many kids are out of school, the beautiful weather and freedom of summer beckon. During the summer months, the heat can be welcoming but also draining for some and for an unfortunate few, it can even be deadly.

Boy reclining on the grass outsideWhat is hyperthermia?

High temperatures in summer can result in hyperthermia. This medical condition takes place when an individual's body temperature is greater than 100 degrees Fahrenheit—similar to a fever—and occurs without a change in the body’s temperature set point. Basically, this happens when the body is making or absorbing more heat than it can release.

What are the causes of hyperthermia?

Hyperthermia is usually caused by either heat stroke or drugs. There are two types of heat stroke: exertional or non-exertional.  

Exertional Heat Stroke

Exertional heat stroke occurs when a person is participating in a physical activity, such as running or playing sports, on a hot day. Sitting in a hot, confined area is also considered a form of exertional heat stroke because the body is working harder than usual to maintain its normal temperature.  This is aggravated by not drinking enough water, lack of air conditioning or drinking alcohol. Hyperthermia can occur when children are playing outside, stuck in hot apartments or are left in cars. Heat stroke can even occur on relatively mild days where the temperature is around 70 degrees, but as the temperature increases so does the risk. In 2010, 49 children ages 2 - 6 died from hyperthermia after being left in a car.

Non-Exertional Heat Stroke

Non-exertional heat stroke is usually caused by medications that reduce sweating, vasodilatation and other heat loss mechanisms. These issues make the body less capable of tolerating high temperatures. Psychotropic drugs and many illegal drugs such as cocaine can cause hyperthermia as well.

Preventing Hyperthermia

Properly protecting yourself from the heat and possible hyperthermia is easy to do! When playing outside in hot weather:

  • Take frequent breaks.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Wear cool clothing.
  • Find a cool shady place to rest.

If spending time indoors during a heat wave, try to find an area with air conditioning or a fan.

How to Cool Down

In cases of severe temperature elevation, take a cool bath or sponge with water. If a persons’ body temperature gets above 104 degrees or the person becomes unconscious, call 911 as this is a medical emergency.

Keep Your Kids Safe—It's the Law

In the state of California, it is illegal to leave a child 6 years or younger in a vehicle unattended because it poses major health risks, especially during the warmer months. Here are a few tips to keep your children safe and prevent hyperthermia:

  • Never leave your child alone in your car, not even with the windows slightly cracked (this has not been proven to reduce the temperature).
  • If you are traveling with a child, place your belongings near them. That way, when you reach for your items, you'll be reminded to grab your little one.
  • Set a reminder on your phone to drop off your child at day care. This can help you remember your child is with you on a busy day.
  • When exiting your vehicle, lock all the doors and trunk. Keep your keys out of reach of children.
  • If your child has gone missing, check your car and trunk first as they could have become trapped inside.

Stay safe this summer by protecting you and your family from hyperthermia, while still having some fun in the sun! Visit the Injury Prevention Program page to learn more about resources available at our hospital.