By Sally Robinson and Keith Bly
Most people know the average, normal human body temperature is about 98.6 degrees. The body is comfortable and wants to stay at this temperature.
When the weather gets above 100 degrees, the only way for the body to cool itself and stay at 98.6 degrees is to sweat. Sweating is effective in keeping the body at its normal temperature, but the body has to have plenty of water to produce sweat. When your body runs out of water, you can overheat quickly.
Your body produces about half a gallon of sweat every hour in a hot environment, and unless you’re drinking water at the same rate that you’re losing it, you will dehydrate and stop sweating. High humidity also can cause the body to overheat because it prevents sweat from evaporating.
If body temperature rises to 106 degrees, heat stroke can occur. Heat stroke is a life-threatening situation and medical treatment is required to prevent brain damage or even death. Death can occur in as little as 30 minutes.
Symptoms of heat stroke include red, hot dry skin, rapid heart rate, dizziness and confusion. The skin becomes red and hot because the skin’s blood vessels expand to try to release heat. Dizziness and confusion occur because high body temperature affects the brain. A person suffering from heat stroke also may have nausea, fast breathing and abdominal pain.
Heat stroke can occur whenever the body is exposed to extreme temperatures. Children especially are prone to suffer when temperatures rise. When playing outside, children should drink plenty of liquids to ensure that their bodies can stay cool.
Children also can suffer from heat stroke if they’re left in a hot car. Don’t leave a child (or a pet) inside of a parked car for any length of time. The temperature inside a car can reach more than 140 degrees in as little as 15 minutes. Leaving a window cracked doesn’t help.
Fortunately, heat stroke can be prevented by drinking a lot of fluids before and during activity that involves exposure to extreme heat. Even if your child doesn’t say she is thirsty, she should still drink because usually by the time that you’re thirsty, you’re already dehydrated. Caffeinated drinks should be avoided because they can cause dehydration.
Dress your child in lightweight, loose-fitting, light-colored clothing. Try to schedule outdoor activities for cooler times of the day (morning or evening). Have your child play in shaded areas. On very hot, humid days, try to spend as much time indoors as possible.
If your child appears to be suffering from heat stroke, seek emergency medical attention if he’s dizzy or unconscious. The first thing that you need to do is cool your child down. Take him indoors and have him drink water if he’s not unconscious. Soak your child’s entire body in cool water or give your child a sponge bath using cool water. Apply ice packs to the head, neck, armpits and groin.
Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston Children’s Hospital and Keith Bly is an assistant professor of pediatrics in the UTMB Children’s Emergency Room. This column is not intended to replace the advice of a physician.