What parents need to know about preventing heat-related illnesses

What parents need to know about preventing heat-related illnesses

As the weather heats up, so can your kids. Many parents are aware of the dangers of leaving young children alone in a car seat in a hot, parked car for even a few minutes — the result can be fatal. But parents and coaches might not realize that hot weather can severely affect older children and teens when they’re outside exercising or playing sports, especially on artificial turf.

Young children are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses for simple reasons like they don’t realize they’re thirsty, or they need help to get water, get in the shade, or get out of a hot car and indoors. Plus, unique characteristics of children’s bodies can cause them to get overheated easily.

“Children younger than nine years old are especially susceptible to heat-related illnesses because they have an impaired ability to sweat and their body surface-to-weight ratio is higher than for adults,” says Miguel Knochel, MD, medical director of the Primary Children's Unit at Intermountain Riverton Hospital, and assistant professor of Pediatrics, University of Utah School of Medicine.

Tips to keep kids from overheating

Most healthy children can exercise and do sports safely, even when it’s hot. Just keep these things in mind:

  • Start exercising for two weeks before the sports season or hot weather starts
  • Cool water is best for staying hydrated
  • In hot weather, a child can sweat one to two cups per hour. Teens playing strenuous sports can lose one to two quarts of sweat per hour. These amounts need to be replenished by drinking frequently
  • Send your child to sports practice with a thermos full of ice water that’s large enough for their age, size, and the length of time they’ll be exercising. A quart may be enough for young children, but teens may need two quarts or more
  • If kids are exercising more than two hours, sports drinks can help replace electrolytes and salts. Look for low-calorie versions
  • Provide easy access to water, and encourage children to drink every 10-15 minutes during play, practices, and games

Symptoms and treatment of heat-related illnesses

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, there are three types of heat-related illnesses:

Most mild: Heat cramps

This happens when children lose too much salt and water, and their body temperature is normal. They have muscle cramps in the legs, and feel uncomfortable. Heat cramps are treated by resting, drinking fluids containing salts, and stretching.

More serious: Heat exhaustion

When a child is experiencing heat exhaustion, their body temperature is higher than normal. They are dehydrated, but still able to sweat, and they feel thirsty, dizzy, nauseous, faint or start getting a headache. To treat heat exhaustion in children, try these things:

  • Get in shade or in air-conditioning
  • Drink cool water or sports drinks if they’re conscious and can swallow
  • Lie down with feet up
  • Remove some clothing/sports equipment and fan them
  • Take the child to a hospital emergency department if they don’t improve or can’t drink

Very serious = Heatstroke

A child suffering from heatstroke will have a very high body temperature. Also, they will be unable to sweat, and their skin will be flushed, hot, and dry. They may seem confused or mentally unclear, will likely feel faint, and are severely dehydrated, even to the point where cell damage, organ damage is occurring, and circulation is diminished.

If a child reaches this point, they require immediate medical attention.

  • Call 911
  • Immediately, start cooling the person off in the shade or air conditioning until medical help arrives
  • Remove some clothing
  • Spray them lightly with water
  • Fan the person
  • Put ice packs under the armpits
  • Rotate ice-water soaked towels on the rest of the body

SOURCE: Exercise-Related Heat Illness (Care of the Young Athlete)

How coaches can help reduce chances of heat-related illnesses

Modify practices or games to allow for water breaks, especially when kids are playing in hot, humid weather or on artificial turf, which can be 35° to 55° F hotter than natural grass according to a 2002 study at Brigham Young University

Schedule games during cooler times of the day, add recovery time between games, change the venue from artificial turf to natural turf, or even cancel games due to extreme heat.

The highest temperature for artificial turf published in a research paper was 200° F on a 98° F day in Provo, Utah. The Safety Office at BYU has set 120º F as the maximum surface temperature for artificial turf surface to be played on safely. When the temperature reaches 122º F, it takes less than 10 minutes to cause injury to skin. (Williams and Pulley, 2002).

Utah’s dry, summer weather may have just the right conditions to make artificial turf especially hot. According to a Penn State study, artificial turf surfaces are hottest between noon and 3 p.m. when it’s sunny, cloudless, and there’s low humidity.

Keeping Kids Hydrated: Can children drink too much water?

In rare cases, drinking an extreme amount of water in a short time can be dangerous. It can cause the level of salt, or sodium, in your blood to drop too low. It’s a condition called hyponatremia or water intoxication, and it can be fatal. But you’d have to drink an enormous amount of water to risk causing it.

"Young, healthy people don’t normally get hyponatremia unless they drink an amount that far exceeds their thirst,” says Dr. Knochel. “Parents should also be careful about how much water to give babies who are old enough to eat solid food, and shouldn’t water-down infant formula.” 

What if a child is excessively thirsty over a long period of time? Could that be a sign of something serious, like diabetes?

“Some children just like to drink a lot. Let them drink whenever they’re thirsty,” says Dr. Knochel. “Excessive thirst due to excessive urine output is an early sign of diabetes. Your doctor can do simple tests to find out if your child has diabetes.”