Heat Exhaustion, Heat Stroke, and Your Toddler: What Parents Need to Know

Heat exhaustion and heat stroke can be scary—and kids are at increased risk. Learn how to spot and prevent heat-related illnesses in your little one.

Toddler in stroller on hot day Shannon Banal/Getty Images
Warm weather often means fun in the sun for kids—long days in the park, hours in the pool, or playing sports. But when temperatures (and humidity levels) soar, little ones can be at risk for heat-related illness like heat exhaustion and heat stroke.

Toddlers, in particular, are at 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.

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, again, as their sweating mechanism doesn't work as well. This is especially true if they're already dehydrated—and that's another contributing factor: Toddlers 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:

What to Watch For and What to Do

Signs of Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion will occur before heat stroke. With heat exhaustion, watch out for:

  • 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)

If your child shows any of these signs, get her indoors or out of the sun and somewhere cool, even if it's just into the shade. You can help cool her off by wetting the skin, or removing layers of clothing, and if she's 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 his or her 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

Heat stroke can occur if heat exhaustion goes undetected or untreated. 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.

With heat stroke, look out for:

  • 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 breating and heartbeat
  • Weakness/dizziness

With heat stroke, the heat regulation center in the body stops working. This causes the core body temperature to rise unchecked. Once this happens, immediate care is critical. You may notice that your child is very hot, but her skin is dry to the touch. This is because she has lost the ability to control her temperature, and can no longer sweat to cool herself.

Call 911 immediately, 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

Knowing the signs of heat illnesses is important, but you should also know what you can do to prevent them in the first place. According to Dr. Juliar, the three best ways to prevent heat exhaustion and heat stroke 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.

You also want to make sure your child is hydrating well. This means pre-hydration (making sure he hydrates before expected exertion outside in the sun), hydrating during activities, and rehydrating after, as well.

Finally, ensure that your toddler is not in the heat for too long. Never place a towel or blanket over a car seat or stroller to shelter him from the sun, as this reduces airflow and can overheat him quickly; and always make sure you 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.