Warm, lazy days of summer equate to lapsed schedules, flexible routines and lots of outdoor fun in the sun. But in Florida, those outdoor activities hold a special risk to the health and well-being of children and older adults — especially when scorching temperatures and high humidity challenge one’s natural ability to cool.
Whether at the beach, the playground or visiting an amusement park for the day, children in particular should be protected against becoming overheated.
According to the Mayo Clinic, heat illnesses occur when the body is unable to regulate normal temperature, which is about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. It is more common in young children — generally younger than age 4 — because their systems are not fully developed, and older adults over age 65 primarily due to the complications of medications or other illnesses.
Additional factors can affect the body’s ability to regulate temperatures at any age. Those include certain medications that interfere with the body’s ability to stay hydrated, obesity, sudden temperature changes and heat indexes above 91 degrees Fahrenheit.
Heat-related illnesses can begin with a mild heat cramp but also can lead to heat stroke, a potentially fatal condition if not taken seriously.
The body’s natural ability to cool itself through sweating and heat radiating through the skin can become compromised on hot days when no precautions are taken. That natural cooling system can begin to fail, allowing heat in the body build up to dangerous levels.
This scenario can lead to serious illnesses including heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke.
Heat cramps are painful muscle cramps in the legs, arms or abdomen that occur either during or after vigorous exercise in extreme temperatures. As the body sweats, it loses salts and fluids which in turn cause muscles to cramp.
Children are especially at risk of heat cramps, particularly if they don’t drink enough fluids during physical activity.
If cramping takes place, resting in a cool place and drinking fluids that contain salt and sugar — as do sports drinks — should ease the pain. Massaging the cramping muscles also may provide relief.
Heat exhaustion, a more severe heat illness, usually occurs during extreme heat and when not enough fluids are taken in.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
Nausea or vomiting
Elevated body temperature
If heat exhaustion is expected, go to a cooler place, such as inside near air-conditioning, or a shady spot. Remove any excess clothing and try cooling the skin with a wet cloth or cool water. It also is wise to consult a physician. If left untreated, heat exhaustion could lead to heat stroke, which can be fatal.
Heat stroke occurs when the body cannot regulate its own temperature and soars to 106 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, which can lead to brain damage or death. Prompt medical attention should be sought immediately to bring the body’s temperature under control.
Symptoms of heat stroke include:
Inability to sweat
Flushed, hot or dry skin
Temperature of 104 degrees Fahrenheit or higher
If any of these symptoms occur, call 911 immediately and get the victim to a cooler place. Remove clothing and douse him or her with cool water. Only give fluids if the victim is awake, alert and acting normally.
A possible complication from heatstroke is shock, caused by a sudden loss of blood flow. Symptoms include unusually low blood pressure, blue lips or nails and cool, clammy skin. Delaying treatment if any of these symptoms are present might lead to severe damage to the brain or other vital organs or death.
The Mayo Clinic advises: “Organs swell, and if you don’t cool your body temperature quickly, the damage from this swelling could be permanent.”
Teaching prevention rituals during the balmy days of summer is an important defense against heat illnesses.
Children should be taught to drink plenty of fluids, before and during activities in the heat. They also should be encouraged to wear light-colored clothing, sunscreen while exposed to the sun and refrain from heavy activity between noon and 6 p.m. when the heat is most severe.
Children also should be encouraged to take breaks indoors, rest and hydrate with fluids whenever they feel overheated.
Taking precautions during the heat of summer can prevent heat-related illnesses and complications. For more information, visit mayoclinic.org.