Children Face Higher Risks from Heat Wave
With a heat dome roasting much of the United States this week, and temperatures soaring here in the DMV, parents of babies and young children are facing unique, weather-related challenges.
According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, children can become overheated up to five times faster than adults. This is because they don’t have as many sweat glands and their body-to-surface ratio is different, making it harder to regulate internal temperatures.
“Because children’s reserves are smaller, it’s easier for them to become dehydrated,” said Dr. Dennis Woo, a pediatrician at UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica. “Add to that the fact that many first-time parents have a tendency to ‘overdress’ their kids in clothing that contributes to overheating. And, of course, very young children can’t tell us when they’re too hot, so it’s important for parents to recognize the early signs of a heat-related problem.”
According to Woo, early indicators of possible overheating include irritability, feeling hot to the touch and sweating. More serious symptoms requiring immediate medical attention are a temperature above 102 degrees Fahrenheit or nausea and vomiting.
He offers the following tips for protecting babies and young children from the heat:
- Avoid going outside, if possible, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when temperatures are highest and the sun’s rays the strongest.
- Be aware that high temperatures are not the lone risk factor. Even if thermometers register below triple digits, if the humidity level is high, it can prevent your body’s internal cooling mechanism – sweating – from working effectively. Because children are smaller, they likely will be more affected by humidity – and overheat – sooner than adults.
- Keep children well hydrated. Remember, they may not tell you they are thirsty or want to drink, but offer plenty of fluids. Water is best for children six months or older.
- Babies younger than six months should be fed more frequently. If you are breastfeeding, be sure to drink plenty of water, too.
- Signs of overheating in newborns include damp head or neck, indicating they are sweaty, redder-than-usual faces, rash, rapid breathing or hot chest.
- Dress children appropriately – loose-fitting, one layered, light-colored clothing is best, ideally in breathable fabrics like cotton.
- Keep kids in climate-controlled areas. If your home lacks air-conditioning, consider going to public places with AC, including movie theaters, malls or even museums. In addition, there are 16 “cooling centers” in D.C. In Virginia, there are nine cooling centers in Alexandria, one in Arlington County, one in Fairfax and one in Falls Church. Prince George’s County operates 22, while Montgomery County does not operate any, but does have libraries, recreation centers and senior citizen centers available. There are also many spray parks and municipal pools that kids can cool down in.
- For homes without air conditioning, consider using room fans to increase air circulation and give lukewarm baths or “sponge baths” twice daily. Be sure the fan is located in a place where children cannot reach it or trip over the cord.
- Children’s appetites will likely be decreased by the heat. Don’t worry if they are eating less as long as their fluid intake remains good.
- Try to limit children’s physical activity. Consider reading books to them, playing quiet games or watching TV together.
Although the following tips don’t apply just to times of heat waves or heat domes, any discussion of heat-related safety would be remiss without them.
- Never leave a child (or pet) alone in a vehicle – not even for a moment. Children have died from heatstroke in cars in temperatures as low as 60 degrees – and cracking windows does NOT help slow the heating process or decrease the maximum temperature.
- Even with the windows cracked, the temperature inside cars can reach 125 degrees in minutes, with 80 percent of the increase occurring in the first 10 minutes.
- If your children will be outside, be sure they wear wide-brimmed hats and sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 20-30. For babies less than six months old, be sure the sun barrier is zinc oxide rather than a chemical sunscreen. And remember to reapply frequently. Apply sunscreen under clothing too.
The University of California, Los Angeles contributed to this report.