It finally feels like spring here in Boston, which means that hot weather will arrive any minute (it always seems to go from snowy to steamy overnight around here). So, parents: How smart are you about heat injury?
I don't mean burns, although between the beach and summer barbecues it's good to know about those, too. I mean injury from being, well, hot.
When it's hot out, we get hot too (makes sense). Being a little hot is okay, but if we get too hot, it's bad for our muscles, organs, and even our brain. So we sweat, and when the sweat evaporates off our skin, it cools us down. Which is great, except that when we sweat a lot, we lose water, salt, and other important stuff--which can leave us dehydrated and throw off our body chemistry.
There are three kinds of heat injury: Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke. Heat cramps happen when you begin to get dehydrated: You could feel cramping in the arms, legs, or belly, or feel sick and thirsty. Heat exhaustion is the next level--it's what happens when you sweat a lot, so you get more dehydrated, and you start to lose salt, too. That leads to worsening cramps, clammy skin, weakness, headaches, dizziness, and perhaps nausea or vomiting.
Heat stroke is the worst. That's when the body's temperature gets up into the danger zone, and the body's thermostat can't regulate itself anymore. Instead of being wet and clammy, people with heat stroke can have dry, hot skin. Along with the symptoms of heat exhaustion, kids may be confused and sleepy. This is a medical emergency. This is what those infants left in cars die from.
There are a few simple things parents can do to prevent all of these from happening:
Be sensible about outdoor activities.
This sounds so obvious, but sometimes we get stuck thinking that it's not so bad, or that we should stay at the beach or theme park since we paid for parking and the ticket, or that the coach will get mad if we pull our kid from the game (or, better yet, point out that it's dangerous for everyone).
If it's really hot, if there's activity involved, and if anyone in the group is complaining of cramping, nausea, or any kind of discomfort, it's time to call it quits and get somewhere cooler.
Make sure everyone drinks often--and before they get thirsty.
Sometimes kids don't even realize they are thirsty, or don't think of asking for something to drink. When exercising in the heat, it's really important to drink every 15 or 20 minutes. Water is best, but if it's going to be a long day outside (like a soccer tournament), sports drinks are okay.
Watery fruits like orange slices or watermelon can help, too. I am often asked exactly how much kids should drink, and that's hard to answer because it depends on so many things (like their size, the heat, the humidity, and how active they are), but if they drink regularly and often, they should be okay.
Sit under a tree. Get a beach umbrella, or a big hat. These things help.
Buy one of those spray bottles, and use it. Fill a kiddie pool, or get out the sprinkler (or just the hose). Cooling the outside of the body goes a long way toward cooling the inside.
Pay attention to aches and pains and other complaints when outside in the heat.
It's easy to chalk the tummyache up to eating too much lunch, and that may be the case, but it also could be dehydration setting in. If your child starts complaining, have him rest in a cool place and drink, and don't let him run around again unless he's all better.
Never, ever leave a child in a car in warm weather.
Even if it doesn't seem that hot, it's amazing how quickly things can escalate. The car might seem cool, and you may think you will only be gone for a minute, but just don't do it.
Every year there are tragic stories of children who die this way. It may be a pain to bring them with you, or wake them up from that nap they need so badly, but don't leave them in the car. Ever. Actually, don't do it in any weather. Anything could happen.
If you ever suspect heat stroke, call 911.
Anytime the skin is hot and dry, anytime someone seems confused or unusually sleepy, is vomiting, or otherwise seems unwell, you should be thinking about heat stroke--and you should call for help immediately.
While you wait for help to arrive, get the person to a cool place and get them wet with cool water. If they are very confused or sleepy, drinking may be dangerous. This is one of those situations when staying on the phone with the dispatcher is a good idea--they can give you ongoing advice.
To learn more about the risks of heat exposure and what you can do, check out the information on healthychildren.org, the health information website of the American Academy of Pediatrics.