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What are heat-related illnesses?

Heat-related illnesses happen when a person is exposed to abnormal or prolonged amounts of heat and humidity without relief or adequate fluids. Children and adolescents adjust more slowly than adults do to changes in environmental heat and are thus more vulnerable to heat-related illnesses.

There are three types of heat-related illnesses:

  • Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat injury and consist of painful muscle cramps and spasms that occur during or after intense exercise and sweating in high heat.
  • Heat exhaustion is more severe than heat cramps and results from a loss of water and salt in the body. It occurs in conditions of extreme heat and excessive sweating without adequate fluid and salt replacement. Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is unable to cool itself properly and, if left untreated, can progress to heat stroke.
  • Heat stroke, the most severe form of heat illness, occurs when the body's heat-regulating system is overwhelmed by excessive heat. It's a life-threatening emergency and requires immediate medical attention.

Why your child might be vulnerable

Children produce more heat with activity than adults, and they sweat less. Sweating is one of the body's normal cooling mechanisms; so children can become overheated when playing or exercising. Children and adolescents often do not think to rest when having fun and may not drink enough fluids when playing, exercising, or participating in sports.

Which children are especially vulnerable to heat-related illnesses?

Children and adolescents with chronic health problems, or those who take certain medicines, may be more susceptible to heat-related illnesses. Children and adolescents who are overweight or wear heavy clothing during exertion, such as marching band or football uniforms, are also more susceptible.

What are symptoms and first-aid measures for heat-related illnesses?

The following chart contains the most common symptoms of heat-related injuries. However, each adolescent may experience symptoms differently. In addition specific treatment will be determined by your adolescent's physician and may include some, or more, of the following:

Condition: Symptoms: First Aid:
Heat cramps

painful cramps, especially in the legs

flushed, moist skin

mild fever, usually less than 102.5 F

Move to a cool place and rest.

Remove excess clothing and place cool cloths on skin; fan skin

Give cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar such as Gatorade

Stretch cramped muscles slowly and gently

Heat exhaustion

muscle cramps

pale, moist skin

usually has a fever over 102 degrees

nausea

vomiting

diarrhea

headache

fatigue

weakness

anxiety, and faint feeling

Move to a cool place and rest

Give cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar such as Gatorade

If no improvement or unable to take fluids, call your adolescent's physician or take your child to an emergency department immediately. IV (intravenous) fluids may be needed.

Heat stroke

warm, dry skin

high fever, usually over 104 degrees

rapid heart rate

loss of appetite

nausea

vomiting

headache

fatigue

confusion

agitation

lethargy

stupor

seizures, coma, and death are possible

Move to a cool place and rest.

Call 911 or your local emergency medical service. Heat stroke is a life-threatening medical emergency and needs to be treated by a physician

Remove excess clothing and drench skin with cool water; fan skin.

Place ice bags on the armpits and groin areas.

Offer cool fluids if alert and able to drink.

Can heat-related illnesses be prevented?

Some general guidelines to help protect your adolescent from heat-related illnesses include:

  • Encourage your adolescent to drink plenty of fluids during vigorous or outdoor activities (including sunbathing), especially on hot days. Good choices include water and sports drinks; avoid alcohol and fluids with caffeine such as tea, coffee, and cola, as these can lead to dehydration.
  • Make sure your adolescent dresses in light colored, lightweight, tightly-woven, loose-fitting clothing on hot days.
  • Have your adolescent schedule vigorous activity and sports for cooler times of the day. Encourage him or her to take rest periods in shady or cool areas.
  • Makes sure your adolescent is protected from the sun (SPF 15) and wears a hat and sunglasses, and uses an umbrella.
  • Encourage your adolescent to increase time spent outdoors gradually so his or her body gets used to the heat.
  • Teach adolescents to take frequent drink breaks and "wet down" or mist themselves with a spray bottle to avoid becoming overheated.
  • Encourage your adolescent to spend as much time indoors as possible on very hot and humid days.
  • Teach your adolescent to warm-up and cool-down before and after exercising.
  • If your adolescent has a medical condition or is taking medication, consult your adolescent's physician for further advice for preventing heat-related illnesses.

Heat Cramps, Exhaustion, and Stroke | Programs & Services