Articles and Topics
Body Overheating & Dehydration
During hot weather, it's important to prevent your children from getting overheated and dehydrated. Young children are in more danger of both for several reasons. They have a larger skin surface relative to their small bodies, so they absorb more heat from the sun and air. When they exercise, they produce more heat. And because they don't sweat as much, their bodies don't cool off as well. Also, they get so focused on playing that they aren't aware that they need to rest, cool off and drink liquids.

Children with certain medical conditions, including obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cystic fibrosis and mental retardation are at even greater risk for overheating and dehydration.

What precautions should I take to prevent overheating and dehydration?

1. Try to spend as much time indoors as possible on very hot and humid days. Use your stove and oven as little as possible and use fans and air conditioners to cool off your home. If your home does not have air conditioning, go to an air-conditioned shopping mall or public library. Have your child wear as little clothing as possible. Consider giving him a cool bath or shower.

2. Never leave your child unattended in a hot automobile. Cars can heat up to dangerous temperatures very quickly. To remind yourself that a child is in the car, keep a stuffed animal in the car seat. When the child is buckled in, place the stuffed animal in the front seat. When leaving your car, check that everyone is out of the car. Do not overlook children who have fallen asleep.

3. Try to schedule outdoor activities during the coolest times of the day, before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

4. Dress your child in light-colored and lightweight clothes, a hat with a brim and sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection. Apply sunscreen with a minimum of SPF 15 before going outdoors, and reapply it every two hours.

5. Make sure your child is well hydrated before, during and after outdoor activities. Beginning about 30 minutes before the activity, have him drink 4 to 8 ounces of liquid. During the activity, have him take breaks every 20 minutes to drink liquids: approximately 4 ounces for a younger child and 8 ounces for a teen-ager. Your child should drink whether or not he feels thirsty, since thirst is a late sign of dehydration. Water, diluted fruit juices and sports drinks are all fine, but flavored drinks help encourage children to drink more. After the activity is over, have him drink another 4 to 8 ounces.

6. Have your child play in the shade as much as possible. If she plays in the sun, encourage frequent breaks in the shade to cool off.

7. Use a mist water-spray bottle to wet down your child on breaks every 20 minutes. When the mist evaporates off her skin, it helps cool her down.

What are the signs of overheating and dehydration, and what should I do if I see them?

There are different kinds of heat-related conditions that your child may develop. The following chart contains the most common signs and symptoms, and what to do if you see them. Remember, when in doubt, call your child's doctor.

Heat-related conditionSigns and SymptomsWhat to do
Dehydration:

Excessive loss of fluids and salts from the body—due to vomiting, diarrhea and sweating—and not enough drinking to replace fluids. Can be mild or severe. Especially dangerous for very young children.
  • Thirst
  • Feeling hot
  • Fatigue, weakness
  • Light-headedness, dizziness
  • Irritability, confusion
  • Listlessness
  • Increased heart rate and breathing
  • Less frequent urination
  • Dry skin
  • Dry mouth
  • Sunken eyes
  • Skin that does not bounce back when pinched and released
For mild dehydration:


  • Take the child to a cool, shady place to lie down and rest.
  • Remove excess clothing and sports equipment.
  • Put cool, wet cloths on his skin, and/or spray with a mist-water spray bottle. Fan the skin.
  • Encourage him to drink plenty of liquids. Sports drinks can help replace fluids and salts.

For severe dehydration (especially with signs of confusion, listlessness or increased heart rate and breathing):


  • Call emergency medical services immediately—this can be life-threatening.
  • Do all of the above while waiting for the ambulance. But only give your child fluids to drink if he is alert. Intravenous fluids and hospitalization may be necessary.
Heat cramps:

The mildest form of heat illness, these are painful muscle cramps during or after intense exercise, due to loss of fluids and salts from sweating.
  • Painful cramps of the abdominal muscles, arms or legs
  • Flushed (red), moist skin
  • Mildly elevated temperature, usually less than 102 degrees F
  • Take the child to a cool, shady place to rest.
  • Remove excess clothing and sports equipment.
  • Put cool, wet cloths on his skin and/or spray with a mist water-spray bottle. Fan the skin.
  • Give cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar. If only water is available, also give the child salty food, such as pretzels.
  • Stretch cramped muscles slowly and gently.
  • Do not let the child return to exercise for a few hours after the cramps end, since it could lead to heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
  • Seek medical attention if the heat cramps do not subside in one hour.
Heat syncope:

Fainting from loss of fluids from exercising in the heat. May occur with prolonged standing or after suddenly rising from a sitting or bent over position.
  • Weakness, fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Mildly elevated temperature, usually less than 102 degrees F
  • If the child is unconscious, call emergency medical services immediately.
  • Take the child to a cool, shady place to lie down and rest.
  • Remove excess clothing and sports equipment.
  • Put cool, wet cloths on his skin, and/or spray with a mist water-spray bottle. Fan the skin.
  • If the child is alert, encourage him to drink plenty of liquids. Sports drinks can help replace fluids and salts.
Heat exhaustion:

Moderately severe overheating and dehydration. If untreated, can progress to heat stroke.
  • Extreme fatigue, weakness
  • Extreme thirst
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Vision problems
  • Agitation or irritability
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Muscle cramps
  • Heavy sweating
  • Flushed (red) or pale, cool skin
  • Elevated temperature over 102º F but less than 104º F
  • Rapid pulse, rapid breathing
  • Fainting, sometimes unconsciousness
  • If the child is unconscious or has difficulty breathing, call emergency medical services immediately.
  • Take the child to a cool, shady place to lie down and rest.
  • Remove excess clothing and sports equipment.
  • Put cool, wet cloths on his skin, and/or spray with a mist water-spray bottle. Fan the skin.
  • If the child is alert, encourage him to drink plenty of liquids. Sports drinks can help replace fluids and salts.
  • If there's no improvement or your child is unable to take fluids, call her physician or take her to an emergency department immediately. Intravenous fluids may be needed.
  • Do not allow the child to return to play that day.
Heat stroke:

Severe overheating. The body's temperature rises very high, the sweating mechanism fails and the body is unable to cool down. The most severe form of heat illness
  • Extreme fatigue, weakness, lethargy
  • Elevated temperature, over 104º F
  • Flushed (red), hot, dry skin (No signs of sweating)
  • Headache
  • Dizziness, confusion, agitation, hallucinations
  • Nausea, vomiting
  • Rapid heart rate, rapid breathing
  • Seizures, unconsciousness
  • Call emergency medical services immediately—this is life-threatening. If emergency medical personnel are delayed, call the hospital emergency room for further instructions.
  • Take the child to a cool, shady place to lie down and rest.
  • Remove excess clothing and sports equipment.
  • Cool the child rapidly, however you can. Place him in a tub of cool water or a cool shower, spray with cool water from a garden hose, sponge with cool water or wrap in a cool, wet sheet, and fan vigorously.
  • Place ice bags on the neck, armpits and groin.
  • If the child has seizures, cushion her with towels to keep her from injuring herself. Do not place any object in her mouth and do not give fluids. If she vomits, turn her on her side.
  • Do not allow the child to return to play until cleared by the doctor.
Dr. Bettye M. Caldwell Ph.D. Professor of Pediatrics in Child Development and Education