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Heat can pose health hazards for kids

By Howard J. Bennett, Special to CNN
updated 7:38 AM EDT, Fri August 10, 2012
Staying hydrated can help protect children from heat-related illnesses in hot weather.
Staying hydrated can help protect children from heat-related illnesses in hot weather.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Illness or a hot environment can cause fevers in children
  • Fevers from illness usually aren't dangerous, but hot weather can be
  • Heat stroke can be prevented with common-sense precautions
  • Tips can help you avoid leaving a child in a hot car accidentally

Editor's note: Howard Bennett is a Washington pediatrician and a clinical professor of pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine. He blogs about common pediatric problems on his website.

(CNN) -- Parents worry a lot about fever, especially the ones that come from illness.

Ironically, despite the sleepless nights that illness-related fevers cause, they are usually the result of the body's normal immune response to an infection. Except for rare occasions, the only time fever itself is dangerous is when it is coming from an outside source.

One common worry that parents have is that their sick child will develop a seizure with a high fever (called a febrile seizure).

Febrile seizures occur in 3% of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years. That means 97% of children will not develop seizures with fever. While 30% of children with febrile seizures will have more than one, most will not, and there typically will be no lasting problems.

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Dr. Howard Bennett
Dr. Howard Bennett

On the other hand, people don't give as much thought to fever caused by the environment. When outside temperatures rise, so does heat-related illness.

Children and adolescents are at risk for heat illness if they exercise outside on a hot day, something to keep in mind now that school athletic practices are beginning.

Body temperature results from a balance between the heat generated by our cells and the heat "lost" to the environment. During exercise, heat is lost by increasing blood flow to the skin, breathing faster and sweating. (When sweat evaporates, it cools the body.)

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Factors that increase the risk of heat-related illness during exercise include the following:

- Insufficient water intake: It is not only important to drink a lot of water during exercise, but it also is equally important to prehydrate before exercise and rehydrate afterward.

- Age: Children have more difficulty adapting to hot environments than adults.

- Weather conditions: Exercising on a humid day decreases evaporation.

- Poor conditioning.

- Clothing: Wearing heavy sporting equipment that reduces cooling or dark clothing that absorbs heat.

Proper hydration matters, even when you're not working out

In addition, one of the most tragic events that can occur during warm weather is when infants or young children become accidentally trapped in a car.

The temperature inside a motor vehicle can quickly rise to more than 120 degrees even if it is only 80 degrees outside.

In this situation, the mechanisms that keep body temperature in the safe range can become overwhelmed. If a person's body temperature goes above 106 degrees, it can lead to serious complications including heat stroke and death.

Tragedy in the backseat: Hot-car deaths

According to the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University, 33 vehicle-related deaths occurred among children in 2011, and 23 deaths have already occurred this year.

The following recommendations reduce the possibility that children will become trapped in a motor vehicle:

- Always keep the car locked with the windows rolled up when it is not in use. The trunk needs to be locked as well.

- Do not leave car keys in a place where young children can find them. Remote control "car keys" are very appealing to children.

- Whenever you transport a child in the car, put something you need next to the child that forces you to look in the back seat before you leave the vehicle.

- Never leave a child unattended in a vehicle, even for a minute.

- Always check the back seat before you leave the vehicle. This applies whether you are doing a chore or going to work.

- You are more likely to overlook something or make a mistake if you are tired, rushed or frustrated. Pay extra attention to safety if your mind is preoccupied.

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