Summertime First Aid: Heat-Related Illnesses

Guest post by Carol Organ Ph.D. This article was reviewed by a medical adviser for the National Wildlife Federation.

ChildonBeach3_MichelleRiggen-Ransom_219x219“I’m melting! Melting!” Are the summer heat and humidity leaving you and your family feeling like the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz?

While many living things thrive in wicked-hot weather, humans, unfortunately, aren’t among them. Overheating can be dangerous and even deadly: Heat is the number-one cause of weather-related deaths. More people die because to excessive heat than tornadoes, hurricanes, floods, and lightning combined.

Parents should pay close attention – school-aged children are especially at risk. Heat illness during a practice or competition is a leading cause of death and disability among U.S. high school athletes, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Don’t panic — heat illnesses are completely preventable. Here’s what you need to know to stay cool, calm, and collected – and to prevent your family from melting into a puddle.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If the person affected by a heat illness does not feel better in thirty minutes, contact a doctor, emergency room, or other health professional. Also, do not give him or her any over-the-counter or prescription medicine, since they could worsen the condition.


What causes heat-related illnesses?

Why are children especially at risk?

Tips to keep cool in the heat

Warning signs and treatment for heat-related illnesses:

What causes heat-related illnesses?

Our bodies have a variety of ways to get rid of extra heat so we can keep our cool. One way is by sweating. As sweat evaporates, it cools us down. Another way is by routing our warm blood toward the surface of our skin, where extra heat can drain off into cooler air.

But when temperatures and humidity soar, our bodies have a rougher time. For example, if we sweat a lot in high temperatures without replenishing fluids, we can become dehydrated, which can lead can lead to a decrease in the volume of our blood, causing our hearts to work harder. And in high humidity, sweat doesn’t evaporate very well. That means the heat can’t escape and instead builds up in the body.

Why are children especially at risk?

Children are especially vulnerable to extreme heat. Because they are smaller, they have less surface area for cooling. Children also aren’t able to sweat as much as adults. In addition, kids often can forget to drink, and they may not know when they are overheating. Infants and children up to four years of age have a much greater risk of heat-related problems (as do people 65 years and older, pregnant women, people on certain medications, and those who are overweight).

Tips to keep cool in the heat:

  • Slow down. Limit strenuous activities to early morning or late evening. Stay in the shade or head indoors during the hottest hours of the day (10 am-4 pm).
  • Dress for success. Wear wide-brimmed hats and loose-fitting, light-colored clothing. Light colors reflect heat and sunlight. Breathable fabrics, such as cotton, allow sweat to evaporate.
  • No parking zone. Never, ever leave an infant or child in a parked car, even with the windows open.
  • Drink up. Drink plenty of fluids before, during and after activities. Keep plenty of beverages on hand, and remind everyone to drink, even if they aren’t thirsty. Nag, if you have to!  Great choices are water and milk, and less frequently, fruit juice. Many summer fruits, such as watermelon and grapes, are good sources of water.
  • Don’t go for the burn. Pass the sunscreen around. Sunburns decrease the body’s ability to cool down.
  • Be a back-seat coach. If your child is participating in organized outdoor sports activities, he or she should have ready access to water. On hot days, kids should be encouraged to wear light-colored clothes and be given frequent breaks. Sports activities should take place early in the day or in the evening, or be moved to shady areas or indoors.

Warning signs and treatment for heat-related illnesses:

When it comes to heat and hydration, it’s important to follow the Scout motto: ‘Be prepared.’ Learn the signs of heat-related illnesses and what to do if you recognize them in a family member or friend.


Warning Signs of Dehydration:

  • Lack of tears when crying
  • Sleepiness or tiredness, decrease in activity
  • Irritability and fussiness
  • Decreased urine, dark-colored urine
  • Dry, sticky mouth
  • Thirst
  • Headache
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness

Treatment for Dehydration:

  • Move to a cool, shaded area or go to an air conditioned place.
  • Provide cool fluids and encourage sipping. Water is the best choice. Avoid drinks with caffeine, alcohol, or large amounts of sugar (such as sodas, fruit punches, and sweetened iced teas).

Heat Exhaustion and Heat Stroke

Heat exhaustion occurs when the body gets too hot. Without proper treatment, heat exhaustion can progress to heat stroke, which can be deadly. Learn the signs of these heat illnesses. If you see any of these symptoms in members of your family, stop your activities and take steps to cool the affected individual down immediately.

Warning Signs of Heat Exhaustion:

  • Increased thirst
  • Weakness
  • Tiredness
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Irritability
  • Headache
  • Heavy sweating
  • Cool, clammy skin
  • Paleness
  • Fast and weak heartbeat (pulse)
  • Fast and shallow breathing (panting)
  • An increase in body temperature

Treatment for Heat Exhaustion: 

  • Stop any physical activity.
  • Get the person out of the heat, and into an air-conditioned area or a cool, shady place.
  • Have the person sip cool, non-alcoholic beverages.
  • Apply cool water to the skin or have the person take a cool shower or bath. You can also fan the person.
  • If the person does not feel better within 30 minutes, contact a health professional.

Warning Signs of Heat Stroke:

  • Hot, dry, red skin with no sweating
  • Rapid breathing and heart rate
  • Severe headache
  • Weakness and dizziness
  • Confusion and/or unconsciousnessNa
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • High fever (over 103 degrees Fahrenheit)

Treatment for Heat Stroke:

  • Heat stroke can be a life-threatening emergency. Have someone call 911 for immediate medical help, while you begin cooling the individual.
  • Get the person to a shaded or air-conditioned area
  • Remove unnecessary clothing.
  • Cool the individual immediately, as best you can. You can place them in a tub of cool (not cold) water or a cool shower, spray them with cool water from a garden hose, or sponge them with cool water.
  • You can place ice packs wrapped in cloth on the person’s wrists, ankles, neck, armpits, groin, and/or back. These areas have lots of blood vessels close to the surface of the skin.
  • Do not give the person fluids to drink.

Carol Torgan, Ph.D. is an award-winning health scientist, e-health strategist, educator and consultant. She is passionate about improving health by encouraging everyone to go outside and experience their five senses in four dimensions. Her Web site, , addresses the interplay of science, technology, and movement and includes a list of 100+ top play resources .