Heatstroke, or hyperthermia, is the second leading cause of vehicle-related deaths for children, only behind motor vehicle crashes in deaths per year. Every year, children in the United States die from heat stroke after being left unattended in vehicles. As part of National Heatstroke Prevention Day on July 31, The Injury Prevention Center at Hasbro Children’s Hospital (IPC) is reminding parents and caregivers to be vigilant of excessively hot weather when driving with children as passengers.
Heatstroke, a condition that occurs when the body isn’t able to cool itself quickly enough and body temperature rises to dangerous levels, occurs more frequently in children because a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult body. On a hot day in just 10 minutes a car can increase in temperature by 19 degrees. Contrary to popular belief, cracking a window open does not help reduce the temperature in a parked car. Left in a car unattended, a child’s health can be in danger within minutes on a very hot day.
It does not have to be excessively hot outside for a car to heat up to a dangerous level. Light pouring through the windows of a car stays within the vehicle and raises its temperature. On an 80-degree day, temperatures inside a vehicle can quickly climb to over 100 degrees.
However, only 18 percent of children who suffer heatstroke from hot cars are intentionally left in a vehicle by an adult. The bigger risk factors for accidental heatstroke injuries in cars come from children playing in unattended vehicles, which accounts for 29 percent of injuries, and children who are forgotten in a vehicle by a caregiver. This is the most common source of injury, accounting for 52 percent of all vehicular heatstroke.
There are also a staggering number of near misses – children who were rescued from a hot car before a fatality. For every child who dies after being left alone in a hot car, hundreds more are near misses, even by the most conservative estimates.
“A car-related heatstroke tragedy can happen to anyone,” said Dina Morrissey, MD, program coordinator for the Injury Prevention Center at Hasbro Children’s Hospital. “It happens to responsible, loving parents of all races, professions and backgrounds, most frequently when routine is interrupted and the parent becomes busy. If your routine is changed, parents and caregivers should take extra care to prevent accidentally leaving a child in the car or allowing them to enter a car during play, such as a game of hide and seek.”
Parents should also be aware of the symptoms of heatstroke. If a child displays any of the following symptoms after being exposed to extreme heat, please seek medical attention immediately:
- dizziness or disorientation
- agitation or confusion
- hot, dry skin that is flushed, but not sweaty
- loss of consciousness
- rapid heartbeat
The IPC offers the following tips to help prevent heatstroke-related injuries:
- Never leave a child alone in a car, not even for a minute.
- Make sure to keep your car locked when you’re not in it, so children can’t get in on their own. Check to be sure everyone is out of the car before locking it.
- Keep key fobs out of children’s reach.
- Create reminders by putting something that is needed at your final destination in the back of your car next to your child, such as a briefcase, a purse or a cell phone. This is especially important if you’re not following your normal routine.
- Set the alarm on your cell phone or computer calendar as a reminder to drop your child off at childcare.
- Make sure you make it clear to babysitters/caregivers that it is never OK to leave your child alone in a car.
- Take action. If you see a child alone in a car, call 911. Emergency personnel are trained to respond to these situations and determine if a child is in danger.