Heat-Related Illnesses

The good news is that in most cases heat-related illnesses can be prevented. Plenty of fluids before, during and following activity will go a long way toward preventing heat-related health problems.


Dehydration is the most common of heat-related illnesses. Children become dehydrated when they don’t replace the fluids lost when they sweat. Dehydration puts children at risk of the more dangerous heat-related conditions. Thirst is the first and most obvious symptom. Other signs that a child is dehydrated include:

  • Headache
  • Irritability
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Boredom or disinterest
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Not being able to play as hard or as well as usual

Keeping a child’s fluid levels up is the best way to prevent and relieve dehydration. Give your child plenty of water or sports drinks before, during and after play. If you suspect a child is dehydrated, start rehydration (replacing the fluids lost by sweating) immediately. Additionally, have the child rest in the shade or other cool area.

“The practice of denying or limiting fluids during training and actual games has proven to be detrimental to performance, and increases the risk of heat illness for children and athletes at any level,” says Richard A. Saladino, MD, chief of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Heat-Related Muscle Cramps

Heat cramps most often occur when it is hot and a child has been active for awhile and is dehydrated. Cramping most often occurs in the lower extremities. Abdominal cramps can also occur as a result of prolonged activity on a hot day. Signs of heat cramps include:

  • Sharp pain not caused by a pulled or strained muscle
  • Persistent muscle contractions during and after activity

If you suspect a child has a heat cramp:

  • Have the child stop playing
  • Give the child a sports drink to replenish fluids, preferably one containing sodium and electrolytes
  • Some light stretching and massage might help

It is not unusual for even the best trained young athlete to experience heat cramps. “We tend to see heat cramps toward the end of the summer, especially when junior high and high school kids are out training twice a day and it is hot,” Dr. Saladino says. “On one hand, they are reasonably trained athletes; on the other, they are pushing their limits.”

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion can occur when the weather is hot and a child continues to be active after already suffering from dehydration.

“We see it episodically on the hottest days of the summer, or at the end of summer when high school football teams are training,” Dr. Saladino says. “We often see a sudden increase in the number of children and young adults with heat illness beyond mild to moderate dehydration.”

Signs a child may be suffering from heat exhaustion include:

  • Trouble playing or finding it impossible to keep playing
  • Light-headedness, fainting, loss of coordination
  • Heavy sweating
  • Pale skin
  • Headache, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Stomach cramps or persistent muscle cramps

If you suspect heat exhaustion take immediate steps to cool the child including:

  • Move child to air-conditioning or at least to a shaded area
  • Remove excess clothing or equipment
  • Cool child with water or fans
  • Have child lie down with legs raised above heart level
  • Rehydrate by having child drink water or sports drink if she is not nauseated or vomiting

If the child does not recover quickly seek medical treatment promptly.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is a serious heat-related illness that untreated can lead to permanent disability or death. Heat stroke occurs when the body’s core temperature rises above 104 degrees, usually as a result of vigorous activity in the heat. The risk of heat stroke increases as heat and humidity rise. Signs a child may be suffering from heat stroke include:

  • Seizures, confusion, emotional instability, irrational behavior or other signs of central nervous system dysfunction
  • Increase in core body temperature
  • Nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headache, weakness, fast breathing, increased heart rate, dehydration or combativeness
  • Heat stroke is serious. Begin treatment immediately
  • Call emergency medical personnel
  • Take child out of the sun
  • Begin cooling child while waiting for emergency medical personnel

When To Seek Medical Treatment

Children suffering ill effects from heat should be carefully observed. In cases of mild to moderate dehydration, replenishing fluids and cooling down a child typically lead to quick recovery. Seek medical treatment promptly when a child:

  • Shows symptoms of heat stroke
  • Shows symptoms of heat exhaustion, but does not recover quickly after attempts are made to cool off and to replenish fluids
  • Does not recover from dehydration after replenishing fluids
  • Has any kind of change in mental status, such as disorientation

In general medical care should be sought when a parent or caregiver is concerned about a child’s heat-related condition.