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Heat strokes, cramping and sunburns: How to stay safe in the summer heat

suntan protection

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With rising temperatures hovering in the upper 90s, Houston summer is officially back! While we all love outdoor fun, we also need to be aware of the potential health challenges the hot weather can pose for children. Most commonly, these include heat exhaustion, heat cramps, sunburn and heat rashes.

We’ve all seen these scenarios before. A young child playing on the beach for hours in the sweltering heat. A teen tirelessly marching in formation outside for band practice in full regalia or a football player pushing himself too hard during a game. Without appropriate skin protection and adequate hydration, these types of outdoor activities could put your children at risk for developing heat-related illnesses.

Below, I’m sharing important information to help parents recognize the early signs of heat-related illnesses so they are better prepared to take immediate action before emergency help arrives.

Heat stroke: A child with heat stroke typically will have a fever (104° F or higher) and other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, headaches, dizziness, confusion, fast strong pulses, warm, red, dry, or damp skin, and occasionally, loss of consciousness. If you notice any of these symptoms, immediately call for help as this is a medical emergency. Move the child to a shady or air-conditioned area. Place cold, wet towels on their body or put them in a bath to cool them down. Do not give them anything to drink.

Heat exhaustion: Heat exhaustion is a milder form of heat stroke. A child will usually have a fever (101°-104° F) combined with other symptoms including nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps, weakness, dizziness, headache, fast, weak pulse, profuse sweating with pale, cold, clammy skin, and occasionally, loss of consciousness. If your child is experiencing signs of heat exhaustion, move your child to a shady or air-conditioned area, give them plenty of water, loosen or remove any thick clothing and place cold wet towels on their body to help them cool down. If your child experiences persistent vomiting, loss of consciousness, or symptoms last for over an hour and get worse, seek medical attention immediately.

Heat cramps: The early signs of heat cramps include muscle pain or spasms (also known as charley horse) due to fluid and electrolyte losses from heavy sweating during prolonged physical activity in hot weather. If heat cramps occur, stop the physical activity and move to a cool place. Drink water or a sports drink. Massage the area and wait for cramps to resolve before resuming activity. Seek medical attention if cramps last longer than one hour or if your child has heart problems or is on a low-sodium diet.

Sunburn: Most of us are familiar with sunburn – when our skin gets red, hot and painful, occasionally with blisters, due to excessive sun exposure. If your child has sunburn, make sure he or she stays out of the sun until the skin heals. Soothe the sensitive area with cool cloths, bath or a moisturizing lotion like aloe vera. Avoid popping blisters as this can increase the risk of infection. To reduce the risk of sunburn, wear loose comfortable clothing that covers your skin, including a hat to guard your face and neck. Try to limit sun exposure during the hottest parts of the day, usually between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30, 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure and every two hours while outside. This will reduce your risk of developing skin cancer in the future and early skin aging. 

Heat rash: Heat rash commonly occurs in hot humid weather due to blocked sweat glands. Depending on which part of the sweat gland is blocked, heat rash can appear as many small itchy red bumps to clear bubbles on the skin. It typically resolves within a few days by keeping the affected area dry and cool.

The summer sunshine can play a great role in building lifelong memories with your children. However, always be on the lookout for signs of heat-related illnesses. Ensure that your children maintain adequate hydration, proper skin protection, and do not over-exert themselves, to help keep them safe and healthy.

Also, I encourage parents to read this article for additional summer safety tips to protect their children from the extreme heat. I hope everyone has a wonderful, safe and fun-filled summer!

External Author
By: Karl Migacz, MD, Pediatric Resident, Texas Children’s Hospital