You’ve packed plenty of snacks and slathered on sunscreen, and you’ve covered all your bases in preparation for a thrilling summertime excursion with the little ones. One concern that may not cross your mind, however, is the risk for overheating. When it comes to your child’s health, ignorance is never bliss, so knowing what to look for is crucial. These are the nine signs your child is experiencing heat exhaustion, and what to do about it.
Dr. Sarah Combs, director of outreach and Emergency Medicine physician at Children’s National Hospital, offers a few precautions parents can take to avoid a dangerous, overheating situation altogether. “First, check the heat index, which factors in humidity as well as the overall temperature. Avoid exercising outdoors on days when it is particularly high,” says Combs in an interview with Romper. “On moderately hot days when you and your children are outdoors, wear loose-fitting, lightweight, light-colored clothes, and don’t forget sun hats and sunscreen. When playing outdoor sports, make sure your child takes frequent breaks for rest, cooling off, and hydration.”
It’s also important to remember that even if you feel just fine in certain weather conditions, your child may not. “Because of their unique physiology, children are more susceptible to temperature extremes and their health effects,” explained the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Children are less able to regulate their body temperature compared with adults.” Heat can quickly cause adverse reactions in young children, and a big explanation for this is, surprisingly, pretty simple. “A child's body surface area makes up a much greater proportion of their overall weight than an adult's, which means children face a much greater risk of dehydration and heat-related illness,” according to WebMD.
While many of the following nine signs of overheating can be treated with shade, rest, and fluids, they can quickly progress into more dangerous heatstroke territory, which requires swift medical intervention.
1. They’re Thirstier Than Usual
If your child is chugging down water at a speedier rate than you typically see and continuing to complain about thirst, they’re likely getting overheated. Have them take a seat in the shade and drink water, or potentially call it a day. It’s important to note, however, that your child may still be overheating, even if this thirst isn’t present. “Remember that feeling thirsty is actually a sign that you are already mildly dehydrated. So, make sure your child is drinking water regularly throughout their time outdoors,” says Combs.
2. They’re Acting Fatigued
Heat and sun can zap your child’s energy, and any sign of lethargy or fatigue means it’s time to wrap things up. If they’re simply dragging their feet and acting like they need a nap, you can take them indoors, have them hydrate, and cool off. However, be vigilant about more extreme symptoms. “Lethargy — non-responsiveness — can be seen in heatstroke, the most severe form of heat-induced illness. This is a true medical emergency. Call 911 or proceed directly to your nearest Emergency Room,” Combs says.
3. Their Skin Is Clammy & Has Changed Color
Rosy cheeks are a sure sign that your child is warm — and potentially overheating. However, take note of all changes in your child’s skin color, not just flushing. While red skin can signal overheating or heat exhaustion, pale skin can as well, according to the Texas Children’s Hospital. If you notice this change in color and/or their skin feels clammy or moist to the touch, it’s time to get out of the heat.
4. They’re Complaining Of A Headache
A throbbing head is a common sign of overheating. It’s so common, in fact, that there’s a phrase for it: a heat headache. “When the body becomes dehydrated, it is believed to trigger a headache due to narrowing blood vessels as the body loses water and electrolytes,” according to an article from the Baylor College of Medicine. Drinking more water than usual in the summer months can help ward off these unpleasant headaches, but it’s even more important while spending time outside. If your child complains of a headache while in the heat or exercising, they’re likely overheating.
5. They’re Dizzy Or Faint
If your child feels dizzy or faint, immediately get them into a cooler area, provide water and cold compresses, and loosen their clothing. Both symptoms are a sign of heat exhaustion, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and can go from bad to worse quickly if not treated. If your child actually faints, or if the symptoms don’t get better after an hour of being out of the heat, it is time to get them medical attention.
6. They’re Nauseated
Stomach cramping and nausea are both signs of overheating, and can indicate that your child may be dehydrated. If they’re feeling green around the gills, you definitely need to have them rest and cool off. If your child actually vomits, the CDC says to seek medical help quickly. Otherwise, keep them out of the heat and hydrating until the nausea subsides.
7. They Have A Fever
It’s probably not surprising that when a child experiences heat exhaustion or heatstroke, their core body temperature raises. “Untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, a life-threatening condition that occurs when your core body temperature reaches 104 degrees F (40 C) or higher,” reported the Mayo Clinic. A rectal thermometer will get you the most accurate temperature reading. If your child’s temperature reaches this level, they must receive immediate medical attention. If your child has a mild fever for over two hours after getting out of the heat, that also merits a call to your doctor.
8. They’re Experiencing Muscle Cramps Or Spasms
Most common during exercise and strenuous activity, cramping or spasming muscles indicate that your child is overheating and likely dehydrated. While WebMD stated that the exact cause of heat cramps is unknown, it’s likely caused by an issue with your child’s electrolytes. “Electrolytes include various essential minerals, such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium,” explained WebMD. “They are involved in chemical reactions in your muscles. An imbalance can cause problems.”
9. They Are Breathing Rapidly & Have A Fast Heartbeat
It can be tricky to spot this red flag if your child has been running around in the heat, as heavy breathing and elevated heartbeat would be present anyway. However, if your child’s respiration and heartbeat remain fast after ceasing activity, drinking water, and resting, they may be overheating. If their breathing is labored or their pulse feels irregular or weak, Texas Children’s Hospital says that’s when parents should be calling 911.
What To Do If Your Child Is Overheated
If your child is having mild symptoms of overheating, take action to ensure things don’t get worse. Christa Kieboom, DNP and Certified Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, says parents should recognize the signs of overheating and know what to do if they suspect it. “First take the child inside or to a cooler environment: shade or a car with the AC on if indoors is not an option,” Kieboom tells Romper. “Undress and lay them down, ideally keeping them calm and with minimal movement which is, of course, easier said than done.” Then, Kieboom says parents should give the child small sips of a chilled clear liquid, popsicle, or a water-dense fruit like watermelon or oranges. Additionally, a salty snack like pretzels after the fluids can aid in rehydration. Place cool compresses on the back of the neck and forehead, or even get the child into a lukewarm bath. “Never put them into an ice bath, as it will decrease the body temperature too quickly,” Kieboom warns.
More serious signs of overheating like fevers, dehydration, lethargy, and fainting absolutely warrant a call to the doctor. If you observe the most severe symptoms, like dizziness; seizures; fast, labored breathing; or a weak pulse, call 911 or take your child to the ER immediately.
As a mother of two myself, I am a firm believer that it is always, always, always better to be safe than sorry. If you feel like your child is overheating, or you believe they just look “off,” take action. You may end up escorting a shrieking toddler off the playground early. You might be worriedly calling the doctor just to be told a glass of water and a nap will suffice. Take the proper precautions, look closely for these warning signs, seek medical care when you’re worried, and, most importantly, trust your mom gut.