September 21, 2023

Extreme heat can pose a ‘significant health risk’ to children, experts say. Here’s what parents need to know.

It's hot there.  Here's how to keep kids safe.  (Image: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

It’s hot there. Here’s how to keep kids safe. (Image: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

With parts of the country coming under heat advisories and the average global temperature hitting an all-time high this month, many parents are increasingly concerned about keeping their kids safe and cool this summer. Ahead, pediatricians share their advice for dealing with extreme heat and the risks it poses to children.

Why is high heat so dangerous for children?

Anyone can be affected by high temperatures, but they can be particularly hard on children, Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, told Yahoo Life. “Children are not good at regulating their temperature,” he says.

Dr. Tracy Zaslow, a pediatrician and primary care sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, agrees. “Children’s bodies produce heat faster than adults and they can’t get rid of that heat as quickly,” she explains. As a result, children can get sick in extreme heat, and they do so more quickly than many adults, she says.

Extreme heat can cause a range of potential health problems, including dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke — a medical emergency, warns the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Children can also become more irritable than usual during heat, the organization says.

When keeping children in air conditioning

The AAP says a heat index at or above 90 degrees poses a “significant health risk” to children. Zaslow recommends families use the heat index to decide whether or not to go outside, if they can.

If the heat index is high and there is no air conditioning at home, Zaslow suggests taking kids somewhere cool indoors, such as a local mall, library, or refrigeration center. “Even spending an hour or two in air conditioning can help,” she says. Electric fans can also be helpful, but if the temperature is 90 degrees or higher, it may not prevent heat illness, says Zaslow. “It’s just circulating the hot air at that point,” she says.

How do you stay safe when you go out?

When you have to go outside and the temperatures are high, pediatricians say there are a few things you can do to keep your child safe.

  • Dress a child appropriately. Loose clothing, lightweight fabrics, and lighter colors are best for staying cool, says Zaslow.

  • Push the hydration. “Make sure your child drinks throughout the day,” says Zaslow. If it’s hard to get a child to drink water on a normal day, she suggests putting fruit in the water to flavor it, offering foods with a high water content (such as watermelon and cucumbers), and encouraging them to drink through a straw. “Children drink more through a straw,” she explains. It’s also important to encourage kids to drink throughout the day — not just when they get thirsty, Kelley Miller, injury prevention coordinator at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, tells Yahoo Life.

  • Feel surfaces before allowing a child to touch them. Car seat buckles and backrests can get incredibly hot in extreme temperatures, Ganjian explains. “Touch the surfaces first to make sure they don’t burn your child,” he says.

  • Take a cool shower or bath. If a child is hot or there is no air conditioning, Miller recommends cooling off with a cold or lukewarm shower or bath.

  • Try to avoid peak hours. “You want to limit outdoor activities to when it’s coolest,” says Zaslow. Miller adds that “playing in the early morning or evening hours and avoiding strenuous activities between the sun’s hottest hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is best.”

  • Avoid the playground when it is particularly hot. Many older playgrounds are on or around asphalt surfaces, which can reflect heat and feel hotter than other areas, Zaslow says. The equipment itself can also be problematic. “Surfaces that absorb heat, such as slides and other metal equipment, have recorded temperatures of up to 189 degrees, which is hot enough to burn hands and feet,” says Miller.

  • Slather on sunscreen. Not only does sunscreen protect a child’s skin, it can also help keep them cool. “When you get sunburnt, it’s harder to cool your body down,” says Zaslow.

  • Close car doors when a vehicle is not in use. Temperatures in a parked car can rise quickly, creating a dangerous environment for children, says Ganjian. “When you park your car in a driveway, make sure the doors are locked,” he says. “Kids love to play in cars and can get stuck in them.”

  • Try to spend time in the water. “Anything with water is great,” says Zaslow, who encourages families visiting the beach to get in the water — not just be there.

Symptoms to watch out for

The AAP recommends watching for the following signs of heat illness in a child:

  • Feeling weak

  • Extreme fatigue

  • Headache

  • Fever

  • Intense thirst

  • Do not urinate for many hours

  • Nausea

  • vomit

  • Breathing faster or deeper than usual

  • Numbness or tingling of the skin

  • muscle strain

As for how long is too long to play outside in warmer temperatures, Ganjian says it really depends on the heat index and how well a child seems to tolerate the weather. “If your child looks hot — they have rosy cheeks, are very sweaty, or are getting fussier than usual — those are signs that your child is overheating,” he says. “You have to get them into air conditioning when that happens.”

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