Symptoms of heatstroke in children can include headache, fatigue, dizziness, and sickness. It might also cause irritability. Heatstroke in children is a medical emergency.

Heatstroke is a condition that occurs when a person’s body temperature climbs too high. It may occur when a child’s temperature exceeds 104°F (40°C) due to a hot environment, often with exercise.

Immediate cooling is necessary to prevent severe outcomes, which makes recognizing symptoms crucial.

This article explores how to recognize and respond to heatstroke symptoms in children.

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According to a 2023 review, heatstroke is part of a spectrum of heat illnesses. Recognizing symptoms of heatstroke in children is important, as it can help separate the condition from heat exhaustion and heat injury.

Understanding how to spot the early signs of heat illness may also help parents or caregivers prevent a child from getting heatstroke.

Early symptoms

Heatstroke might start with symptoms of heat exhaustion. These may occur at a body temperature of less than 104°F (40°C) and include:

Heat exhaustion will typically not cause cognitive problems, but it may cause:

Heat exhaustion may also cause pale skin and excessive sweating.

People can manage mild heat exhaustion with fluids and rest. However, without treatment, it can progress to heatstroke, so severe heat exhaustion requires medical attention.

Other symptoms

Heatstroke is more likely to cause an altered mental state, including:

A child with heatstroke may or may not sweat. Sweating affects under 50% of children with heatstroke.

However, they may have hot, flushed skin. This flushing might be harder to see in children with dark skin.

Learn more about the symptoms of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.

Heatstroke can be life threatening for children, so prompt emergency treatment is vital.

A person needs to contact emergency services if they notice that a child is experiencing:

  • symptoms of heat exhaustion, even after drinking fluids and resting in a cool area
  • an extremely high body temperature of 104°F (40°C) or more when in a hot environment
  • skin that feels hot to the touch, but the child is not sweating
  • a rapid heartbeat
  • fast or difficult breathing
  • signs of confusion or balance issues
  • a loss of consciousness
  • a seizure

The most important thing to do for a child with heatstroke is to contact emergency services while cooling the child down.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following steps while waiting for emergency services to arrive:

  • Move the child into a cool environment as quickly as possible.
  • Wrap them in loose, cold, damp clothes or a cloth.
  • If no sheet is available, use a fan or a sponge full of cold water.
  • Avoid giving them any fluids.

If a child loses consciousness due to heatstroke, place them in the first aid recovery position:

  • Kneel by the child’s side as they are lying on their back.
  • Take the nearest arm, extending it at a right angle to their body. Their palm should be facing upward.
  • Fold the other arm, placing the back of their hand on the nearest cheek. Hold this hand in place.
  • With a free hand, bend the child’s far knee into a right angle.
  • The first aider should slowly and gently pull the bent knee toward them and roll the child on their side. The bent arm should still be protecting the head.
  • Gently tilt the child’s head back and lift their chin to open the airway and check that nothing is blocking it.
  • Stay with the child until help arrives.

During emergency treatment, doctors will likely provide the following treatments for children with heatstroke:

  • rapid cooling, such as by:
    • placing the child in an ice bath
    • applying an ice pack
    • using a fan while a child has a cool, saltwater solution on the skin
  • muscle relaxants, such as benzodiazepines, to reduce the shivering response to cooling treatments
  • providing fluids, often through an oral rehydration solution that also provides sodium

Children are at risk of heat illness when outdoor temperatures reach 90°F (32.2ºC).

During very hot days, people need to keep children indoors or go to locations with a water source, such as the swimming pool or beach.

It can help to switch on air conditioning or find a local building, such as a library, with air conditioning.

Other tips to keep children cool and avoid the risk of heatstroke include:

  • Provide plenty of fluids: Give children water before they ask for it and always take water before going out. Children under 6 months can take extra breast milk or formula but should not drink water.
  • Dress children for the heat: Dress children in loose-fitting, light-colored, and thin clothing. This can help children by reducing how much heat they absorb while letting plenty of air in.
  • Plan for and encourage rest: Children should come back inside regularly to cool off, rest, and drink water.
  • Provide cool baths or water mists: Cool water can help keep children feeling cool. Swimming or water fights are activities that combine fun and cooling methods. However, supervise these activities to prevent accidents or injury.
  • Do not leave children alone in vehicles: Cars heat up dangerously quickly, so people need to avoid leaving a child alone in a vehicle.

Below are answers to common questions about heatstroke and heat exhaustion.

What are the first signs of heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion can occur before heatstroke. Symptoms can include headaches, irritability, nausea, vomiting, fainting, weakness, and more. Taking steps to manage symptoms of heat exhaustion can help prevent it from developing into heatstroke.

Is heatstroke the same as dehydration?

Dehydration and heatstroke are not the same thing. However, dehydration can occur along with heat exhaustion. Additionally, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke.

Learn about how to rehydrate safely.

Heatstroke in children can cause initial symptoms such as nausea and vomiting, dizziness, and headaches. These individuals may then experience symptoms such as hallucinations and confusion. Children may pass out or experience seizures or a coma.

Emergency treatment is essential for children with heatstroke. While emergency services are arriving, keep the child cool and place them in the recovery position if they lose consciousness. Emergency treatment involves rapid cooling and sufficient rehydration.