8 Signs Of Heat Stroke In Babies, Causes And Prevention

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Babies are easily susceptible to environmental changes. For instance, a sudden temperature rise may cause heat stroke in babies. Likewise, an extremely hot day could be as difficult as wintry weather for them. Though rare, a heat stroke may cause serious consequences in babies. Therefore, you must keep a watch on your little one’s symptoms to manage the condition while it is in moderation. Read on to discover the causes, signs, treatments, and prevention of heat strokes in babies.

What Is A Heat Stroke?

A heat stroke or sunstroke is a heat-related illness where the body is unable to dissipate heat efficiently, leading to a surge in the core body temperature (1). The condition is called hyperthermia in medical terms.

The body produces heat through several metabolic activities. It sheds that heat through radiation from the skin and evaporation of sweat, thus allowing the body to maintain normal temperature. However, high ambient temperatures and high humidity can prevent the body from losing sufficient heat, leading to overheating.

Evaporation does not occur when the ambient humidity exceeds 75% and is less effective in infants because they are not acclimated.
It can eventually cause a gradual rise in body temperature to more than 104°F (40°C), resulting in a heat stroke. Sometimes, the temperature can dangerously reach 106°F (41.1°C). Temperatures exceeding 106°F or 41.1°C generally are catastrophic and require immediate aggressive therapy (2).

Is Heat Stroke Same As Heat Exhaustion And Heat Cramps?

No. It is different although heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and heat cramps are all heat-related illnesses. The following are the key differences between them (3) (4):

Heat crampsHeat exhaustionHeat stroke
A mild heat illnessHeat illness with moderate symptomsA severe form of heat illness
No feverFever of about 100-102°F (37.8 – 39°C)Fever of about 105°F (40.5°C)
The baby is conscious and healthyThe baby may feel drowsy and dizzyThe baby may be semi-conscious with extreme lethargy
Does not require hospitalizationHospitalization rarely neededUsually requires hospitalization
Treatable at home by drinking more fluidsTreatable at home with more fluids and restWill need medical attention beyond fluids and rest
Will last only for a few hoursMay last for a few hours to a dayEffects can last from hours to several days
Never fatalSeldom fatalVery fatal; can even cause death if ignored

What Causes Heat Stroke In Babies?

When parents think of heat stroke, they think of summer. But the reasons for heat stroke go beyond the summer heat. Here are the things that can cause your baby to suffer heat stroke:

  1. Being left alone in a parked car: Leaving a child inside a stationary car with rolled up windows and no air conditioner can cause the vehicle to heat up from inside thus leading to a heat stroke in the child. In fact, heat stroke is the leading non-accident related cause of deaths for children inside an automobile. The temperature in a closed car cabin can rise quickly to as much as 20 degrees higher than the surroundings (5). Moreover, a child’s body temperature can increase about five times faster than that of an adult. These factors cause the baby to get overheated and suffer a heat stroke.
  1. High temperature and humidity: If the baby is exposed to high temperatures under direct sunlight, they can be susceptible to heat stroke. High humidity impedes optimum evaporation of sweat, which is one of the primary ways of losing body heat. Sustained exposure to a hot and humid environment can increase the risk of the baby suffering a heat stroke.
High temperature and humidity can cause heat stroke in babies

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  1. Some medications: Some drug compounds can restrict the movement of blood from the blood vessels within the body to the ones present beneath the skin where they can lose their heat through evaporation of sweat (6). Most medicines are not meant for infants, but some of them like laxatives, antihistamines, and beta blockers, could be prescribed to them.

What Are The Symptoms Of Heat Stroke In Babies?

A baby experiencing a heat stroke will display the following symptoms (7) (8):

  1. Fever with a temperature of about 105°F (40.5°C).
  2. Hot and dry skin. The baby may not be sweating as about 50% of children who suffer heat stroke do not sweat at all.

    Hot and dry skin could be a symptom of heat stroke in babies

    Image: iStock

  3. Dizziness, lethargy, and semi-consciousness. The elevated temperature has a direct impact on the functions of the central nervous system, which impairs consciousness.
  4. Older infants and toddlers may also look confused and disoriented.
  5. Nausea and vomiting.
  6. A headache, which may cause restlessness and fussiness.
  7. The baby may not urinate for hours.
  8. The baby could have trouble breathing and acute shortness of breath.

The symptoms do not emerge suddenly but develop gradually over an hour or several hours depending on the intensity of the cause of the heat stroke. Heat stroke is a medical emergency, and you must act fast.

What To Do When A Baby Has A Heat Stroke?

When your baby is having a heat stroke, follow these quick home remedies:

  • Move the baby to a cool place: If the baby is in the car, take them indoors to a cooler environment. Removing the baby from the hot environment is the first step in letting the baby’s body cool down.
  • Remove excess clothing like a jacket: You can let the baby stay in a diaper to allow the body to cool down better.
  • Spray cool water and then fan the skin: The water should be cool and not cold or ice-cold. The ideal temperature of the water is 59°F (15°C). Use a spray bottle to spray a fine mist of water on the baby’s skin and then fan it. It can help in quick loss of heat at a rate of almost 0.56°F (0.31°C) per minute.
Fanning the baby's skin can help in quick loss of heat

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  • Place ice packs at different parts: in the underarms, groin, neck, and forehead to bring down the temperature.
  • Give cool fluids to drink: If your baby is younger than six months, then you can breastfeed to help the baby feel better. Infants older than six months can be breastfed and given frequent sips of cool water.
  • Call local emergency number or rush to a doctor: Your baby will also require medical attention and administration of intravenous fluids. Therefore, once you have observed the initial remedies to cool down the body temperature, call the local emergency number or take the baby to the doctor right away.

How Is Heat Stroke Treated?

Babies diagnosed with heat stroke should be admitted to the hospital for at least 48 hours to monitor for complications. Here is what the doctors will do beyond the home remedial steps:

  • Provide intravenous fluids for hydration because heat stroke can gradually cause dehydration. The IV fluids can also help bring down the core body temperature.
  • Monitor renal and neural function. The health of the baby’s kidneys and the brain are monitored continuously to ensure that these organs function properly.
  • Keep the ambient temperatures low to allow the body to cool down efficiently.
Keeping the ambient temperatures low can help to cool down the baby

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The doctors may continue using remedies like spraying cool water on the baby’s skin and placing of ice packs at different parts of the body instead of giving any medications.

What Are The Complications Of Heat Stroke In Babies?

An unattended heat stroke in babies can lead to the following complications:

  • Dehydration is one of the most common complications of heat stroke. A rise in temperature can cause the body to lose water and electrolytes quickly.
  • High body temperature can cause the central nervous system to shut down and make the baby slip into a coma. The baby may also experience convulsions and seizures. In severe cases, they may sustain permanent damage to the nervous system.
  • Multiple organ failure can occur when timely help is not provided. It can eventually cause cardiac arrest and death.

Complications of heat stroke seldom happen if the baby is provided prompt attention. But did you know it is much easier to prevent heat stroke?

How To Prevent Heat Stroke In Babies?

You can prevent heat stroke in babies by minimizing their risk of exposure to high temperatures. Here is what you can do to avoid heat stroke in an infant:

  1. Do not leave a baby unattended in a car: Even if you are going out of the car for a few minutes, carry the child along with you. Some parents may leave the air conditioning on while leaving the child in the car. However, it is not safe. An older infant or toddler can fiddle with the air conditioning controls and switch it off thus leading to the risk of the car heating up. If there is absolutely no way to take the baby with you, then make sure you keep the air conditioning/climate control on and that there is another adult in the car with the baby.
  1. Minimize the exposure to intense sunlight: Children below the age of six months should not be exposed to direct sunlight (9). In the case of older infants and toddlers, avoid taking them out under direct sunlight between 10am and 4pm when the rays are the most intense, especially in the summer months. When going out of the house during hot weather, keep the baby hydrated by giving them frequent breastfeeds and sips of cool water.
  1. Dress the baby appropriately: Make the baby wear breathable, natural fabrics when going out of the home during summer months. Light-colored cotton clothes and a cotton hat will do great since they shield the baby from sunlight while also allowing ventilation to the skin and preventing overheating. During humid conditions, make sure you do not overdress the baby and if required leave the baby in a diaper for some time when it gets very hot and humid.
Make the baby wear breathable, natural fabrics

Image: Shutterstock

Heatstroke in babies is a rare but worrisome heat-related illness that can occur due to various conditions, such as exposure to high temperature and humidity and some medications. A baby diagnosed with heat stroke requires prompt medical care to avert adverse complications, such as severe dehydration and organ failure. Spraying cold water on the baby’s skin and putting ice packs wrapped in a towel or cloth at various body parts can help calm babies. Minimizing exposure to intense sunlight and dressing the baby in weather-appropriate, breathable clothes, especially in summers, can significantly reduce the heatstroke risk.

References:

MomJunction's articles are written after analyzing the research works of expert authors and institutions. Our references consist of resources established by authorities in their respective fields. You can learn more about the authenticity of the information we present in our editorial policy.
1. What is heatstroke?
2. Hot cars can kill; NHTSA.
3. The difference between heat exhaustion and heatstroke; Children’s Hospital Colorado.
4. Heat exposure and reactions; Healthychildren.org
5. This summer, remember: Heatstroke kills; US Department of Transportation.
6. Management of heatstroke and heat exhaustion; American Family Physician.
7. Heat exposure and reactions; Seattle Children’s Hospital
8. Heat-related illnesses in children playing sports; Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.
9. Sun Safety: Information for Parents About Sunburn & Sunscreen; Healthychildren.org.
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Rohit Garoo

Rohit Garoo did MBA from Osmania University and holds a certificate in Developmental Psychology from The University of Queensland. The zoologist-botanist turned writer-editor has over 8 years of experience in content writing, content marketing, and copywriting. He has also done an MBA in marketing and human resources and worked in the domains of market research and e-commerce. Rohit writes topics...
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Dr. Fadel Husrom

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Dr. Fadel Husrom is an Arab Board licensed pediatrician in the UAE. He possesses a degree in Pediatrics and master degree in Pediatric Cardiology from Damascus University. He has more than 10 years professional experience in Pediatric and Pediatric Cardiology disciplines. Dr. Husrom is also affiliated with the American Heart Association as a PALS instructor in Zulekha hospital advanced life...
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