Heat-related Illnesses: Know the Signs and How to Keep Your Child Safe


megan-summers-author-banner 101613 Summer days bring increased fun outdoor activities for young children, adolescents and young adults. While kids and teens may think of themselves as invincible, they are prone to heat-related illnesses.

As an RN in Children’s Hospital Los Angeles’ Inpatient Rehabilitation unit, injury prevention is a topic that’s close to my heart.  With summer temperatures rising, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about common heat-related illnesses and ways to keep your kids and teens safe in the heat.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration say heat is the number one weather-related killer in the United States, resulting in hundreds of fatalities each year. In addition, the American Academy of Pediatrics, state heat stroke is one of the common causes of exercise-related death in high school students in the United States. Heat-related illness is more common that one may believe. Continue reading and become informed!

What are the Three Main Categories of Heat-Related Illness?

As a parent or guardian, it’s important to recognize when heat-related illnesses affect your child and how to effectively treat it.

1. Heat Cramps/Edema/Syncope  – These are the mildest of the three heat-related illnesses. Heat cramps are common in children and young athletes.  Common symptoms are muscle pain, tightness and spasms. Heat Edema – This is usually the result of being unaccustomed to hot/humid temperatures.  Common symptoms are swelling of the hands and feet.  Heat Syncope – This results from overheating, and having a low intake of water and salt. Symptoms include pale skin, fatigue, light-headedness and fainting.

2. Heat Exhaustion – This is severe and is a result of water and salt loss from the body from excessive sweating. Heat exhaustion occurs in conditions of extreme heat without adequate fluid and salt replacement. If heat exhaustion is not treated, it can develop into heat stroke.  Common symptoms are extreme tiredness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, rapid pulse, pale or flushed skin and profuse sweating. Treatment includes the administration of cool liquids, use of fans, cooler or cold environment.

3. Heat Stroke – This is extremely serious. It occurs when the body’s temperature rises rapidly to an excessively high degree and the body is unable to cool down. Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency and requires IMMEDIATE medical attention.  Common symptoms are body temperature higher than 104 degrees, low blood pressure, disorientation, loss of consciousness, seizures.  Treatment includes care in an emergency department.  Care given will include ice packs, intravenous fluids, lab testing and transfer usually to a critical care unit.

What You Should Do When Heat-Related Illness Strikes

 Whether you’re witnessing heat cramps or heat stroke, you should ALWAYS:

  • Remove your child from the activity they are playing
  • Get out of direct sunlight
  • Give your child plenty of water or liquid with electrolytes such as a sports drink


Refer to this simple guide to recognize symptoms and remedies for each level of heat-related illness. This is a good flier to post on your refrigerator or family bulletin board. Why not send it to friends and family too!

Why are Children and Teens Vulnerable?

Children and teens are busy and may not be able to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illness. Children don’t realize they need rest breaks or drink enough fluids. Additionally, infants and young children must rely on other people to pace their activity and keep them cool and hydrated. Teens, especially young athletes may think they can “push through” the heat and ignore symptoms. Educating children and teens about the importance of adequate and proper hydration, as well as the dangers of heat-related illness, is critical in reducing the risk of heat injury.

Heat-Related Illness Prevention Tips

Important tips - staying in-doors if it’s extremely hot outside. Easier said than done, so if you are enjoying the outdoors please keep these tips in mind to protect your child:

  • Wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing.
  • Wear a hat.
  • Wear sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more and apply this every hour. For more information on sunscreen safety and the FDA’s new regulations that come into effect this year see my previous blog post, “Sunscreen Safety: Understanding the FDA’s New Regulations
  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration, such as water or an electrolyte enhance drink like Gatorade.
  • Your child should drink fluids every 15 to 20 minutes.
  • Avoid fluids containing caffeine or alcohol. Caffeine and alcohol actually make you more dehydrated and susceptible to heat-related illness.
  • Plan your activities around cooler times of the day, for example before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
  • Take frequent rest breaks in a cool and shady area.
  • For older children and teens, use a “buddy system” to keep an eye on each other to rest breaks and drinking enough fluids.
  • If you or your child is taking prescription medication or has a chronic condition, please consult with the physician regarding outdoor activity.

I hope this information helps you feel more prepared to be outdoors and how to handle heat-related illnesses if it occurs. Now go have fun and enjoy the summer! Acknowledgement: Thank you to Alan Nager, MD, MHA, Director of Emergency and Transport Medicine of Children's Hospital Los Angeles, for his advisement of this post.