With the dog days of summer at hand, the heat and humidity are likely to get worse before cooler, fall temperatures arrive in late September. That makes the danger of heat stroke a serious threat for children. One often overlooked danger is the automobile, as temperatures inside a vehicle can quickly climb to more than 120 degrees when the engine is off and windows raised. And this can happen at any time during the year in Louisiana.
“The inside of a car acts like a greenhouse,” said Shafqat Cheema, M.D., a pediatric intensivist at Rapides Women’s and Children’s Hospital. “The temperature can reach 120 degrees or more in less than an hour.” Already this year, 23 children have died nationwide after being left unattended in vehicles. Of those, 15 deaths were confirmed heat-stroke cases–including a 3-year-old child in Shreveport. Heat stroke is suspected in the other eight cases.
In Louisiana, there has been at least one case of a child dying in a locked vehicle in each of the past nine years, according to the Department of Geosciences at San Francisco State University. In 2010, a rural Rapides Parish toddler died in a locked vehicle while playing.
Dr. Cheema is a newcomer to Louisiana, but said he’d recently noticed one of his own children showing signs of being overcome by heat. “When you see a child having flushing, very warm body, altered mental status, difficulty in concentrating, dizziness, headache, nausea, vomiting,” those are signs of heat stroke, Dr. Cheema said. In his case, Dr. Cheema’s child was showing signs of flushing, a reddening of the cheeks and body. Dr. Cheema said when the body is exposed to excessive heat, the brain sends out signals to the heart to increase blood flow to the extremities and for the body to begin perspiring as a means of cooling. Unfortunately, with the blood flow re-directed, the flow of blood to some organs is reduced. “The heat exposed to the body might cause deprivation of the vital organs of the body, which includes the brain,” said Dr. Cheema.
Children, said Dr. Cheema, are more susceptible to the effects of heat than adults due to the size of their bodies. Their bodies warm at a rate up to five times faster than an adult. A core body temperature of 107 degrees is considered lethal. Heat stroke occurs when a person’s temperature exceeds 104 degrees. The National Weather Service offers some tips concerning children and hot vehicles:
- Make sure your child’s safety seat and safety belt buckles aren’t too hot before securing your child in a safety restraint system, especially when your car has been parked in the heat.
- Never leave your child unattended in a vehicle, even with the windows down.
- Teach children not to play in, on, or around cars.
- Always lock car doors and trunks, even at home, and keep keys out of children’s reach.
- Always make sure all children have left the car when you reach your destination. Don’t leave sleeping infants in the car ever. Other websites and safety groups suggesting placing a purse, briefcase, laptop or other every-day item needed for work, in the back seat to make sure you check the entire vehicle each day before you lock the car at the workplace.
Should you see an unattended child showing signs of heat hyperthermia, Dr. Cheema offers these tips:
- Call 9-1-1 immediately.
- Remove the child from the vehicle.
- Move the child to a cooler environment, preferably one with air conditioning.
- Remove excess clothing and dampen the skin with water.
- Use a fan to help reduce the body temperature until medical personnel arrive.
For more information about children and heatstroke, visit the Health Library at www.rapidesregional.com.