Little kids have an increased risk of heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which can be dangerous if left untreated. Learn how to spot the symptoms and prevent heat-related illnesses in your child.

By Isa Down
Updated April 15, 2021
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Warm weather usually means fun in the sun for kids. But when temperatures (and humidity levels) soar, little ones can be at risk for heat-related illness like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Toddlers have an especially high risk for heat-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because they have less body surface area to utilize to regulate their temperatures. With less space to sweat, and underdeveloped regulation capacity, younger kids tend to get heat exhaustion quickly. Toddlers are also unable to independently correct their body temperature.

Toddler in stroller on hot day
Credit: Shannon Banal/Getty Images

Humidity and dehydration play roles, too. When the environmental humidity level is greater than 60 percent, it's harder for kids to cool themselves down, as their sweating mechanism doesn't work as well. Dehydration makes matters worse, and it's another contributing factor to a toddler's increased risk: Little kids may not ask for water as much, says Rebecca Juliar, M.D., a family medicine doctor at Boulder Medical Center in Colorado.

If not recognized quickly, heat illnesses can be life-threatening. The good news is that they're preventable. Here's what you need to know about heat stroke and heat exhaustion in kids. 

Signs of Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion will occur before heat stroke. If your little one is playing in the sun, watch out for these telltale heat exhaustion symptoms.

  • Excessive sweating
  • Irritability
  • Dizziness/fainting
  • Pale skin
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Headache
  • Muscle cramps
  • Increased thirst
  • Weakness
  • Cool clammy skin
  • Elevation of body temperature (but less than 105 degrees F)

How to Treat Heat Exhaustion

If your child shows any of these heat exhaustion symptoms, get them indoors or out of the sun, even if it's just into the shade. You can help cool them off by wetting the skin or removing layers of clothing, and if they're alert, slowly rehydrating with cool water or a low-sugar sports drink to replenish electrolytes. "If symptoms worsen, or if they do not improve in 20-30 minutes despite the above treatment, seek medical attention to avoid progression to heat stroke," says Dr. Juliar.

Regardless, if your child has shown signs of heat exhaustion, you should check in with their pediatrician to ensure no further care is necessary, says Dr. Juliar. "Fortunately patients with heat exhaustion usually recover quickly—within 30 minutes of treatment—and fully and have no issues after the fact," she says.

Signs of Heat Stroke

Wondering about the difference between heat exhaustion and heat stroke? According to experts, heat stroke might occur if heat exhaustion goes undetected or untreated. It happens when the heat regulation center in the body stops working, which causes the core body temperature to rise unchecked. 

Heat stroke is a life-threatening emergency. The first thing to do if you suspect a child is suffering from heat stroke is call 911.

Watch out of the following heat stroke symptoms: 

  • Flushed/hot skin that is dry to the touch
  • High body temperature (105 degrees F or higher)
  • Fainting
  • Seizures
  • Severe headache
  • Confusion/agitation
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Rapid breathing and heartbeat
  • Weakness/dizziness

How to Treat Heat Stroke

You may notice that your child is very hot, but their skin is dry to the touch. This is because they've lost the ability to control their temperature, and they can no longer sweat to cool themselves.

Immediate heat stroke treatment is critical. Call 911 right away, then move the child to a cool area, have them lie down with their feet slightly elevated, wet the skin or clothes, remove articles of clothing, and fan them vigorously. 

How to Prevent Heat Illnesses in Kids

Knowing the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke is important, but you should also take steps to prevent them in the first place. According to Dr. Juliar, the three best ways to prevent heat illnesses are:

  • Shade
  • Hydration
  • Appropriate clothing

"When toddlers are playing outside in higher temperatures, encourage play in shaded areas, offer water frequently, and ensure they are wearing light breathable clothing," she says.

Also make sure your child is hydrating well. This means pre-hydration (drinking fluids before expected exertion outside in the sun), hydrating during activities, and rehydrating afterwards. 

Finally, don't let your child stay in the heat for too long. Never place a towel or blanket over a car seat or stroller, as this reduces airflow and can overheat them quickly. Always double check the backseat of your car and never leave your child in a vehicle unattended, even if it's just for a couple minutes.