Recognizing Heat Syndromes in Children

Take a preventative approach toward heat illnesses in kids, minimize risk factors by ensuring regular and proper hydration throughout the day.


Now that school’s out for summer, we’re willing to guess that your kids can’t get enough of being outdoors. Whether they’re at camp, enjoying team sports, or playing in the park, it can be pretty difficult to pry them away from fun in the sun.

Even though they’re all smiles and laughter on the playground, heat syndromes are a very real concern, for both kids and adults, during the hottest months of the year—notably July and August. A clinical study published in the Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association notes that there are at least 240 deaths every year in relation to heat stroke.

Read on to understand, identify, and treat the three severities of heat illnesses: heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps can occur during or after activity in extreme heat conditions. The onset of physical cramping is related to electrolyte regulation, excessive loss of fluid, and sodium through sweat.

SYMPTOMS: In addition to brief, painful cramps, other symptoms of heat cramps occurring include:

  • Acute muscle spasms
  • Nausea

TREATMENT: To immediately begin treating heat cramps, do the following:

  • Remove the child from the hot environment
  • Rest in a cool spot
  • Externally cool the body with wet towels or ice packs placed in the underarms, base of neck, foreheat, and/or groin
  • Rehydrate with water, saltwater and/or electrolytes

Heat cramps can progress to the next stage of heat illnesses, heat exhaustion.

Heat Exhaustion

The next progression, heat exhaustion, encompasses all of the same physical effects of heat cramps in addition to a few other symptoms. This stage of the illness results in a failure of the cardiovascular system to respond to the exertion being placed upon it under high external temperatures and likely dehydration. At this stage of the progression, it’s difficult, or even impossible, to continue performing activity in the heat.

SYMPTOMS: The onset of heat exhaustion can be sudden. A regular core body temperature is between 35.8°C and 37.3°C. An individual presenting with heat exhaustion will have an internal temperature between 37.3°C and 40°C. Further symptoms may include:

  • Headaches & dizziness
  • Extreme weakness
  • Heat sensations & cramps
  • Chills
  • Irritable temperament
  • Low blood pressure
  • Elevated pulse
  • Nausea and vomiting

TREATMENT: To treat heat exhaustion, take the following actions:

  • Stabilize the child in a cool area
  • Monitor vitals including blood pressure, heart rate and body temperature.
  • Externally cool the body with wet towels or ice packs placed in the underarms, base of neck, foreheat, and/or groin
  • Rehydrate with water, saltwater and/or electrolytes

If conditions don’t improve within 20 to 30 minutes or vital signs deteriorate, seek medical attention while continuing to treat with cooling methods. Avoid heat exposure for at least 48 hours after.

Heat Stroke

The American College of Sports Medicine defines a heat stroke (the most severe of the three progressions) as “a condition in which body temperature is elevated to a level that causes damage to the body’s tissues, giving rise to characteristic clinical and pathological syndrome affecting multiple organs.” Essentially, core body hyperthermia is above 40°C and requires professional medical attention. At its most extreme, it’s not even possible to produce sweat.


In addition to elevated core body temperature at or above 40°C, heat stroke can be recognized by:

  • Dysfunction of the central nervous system
  • Cardiac Arrhythmias
  • Hyperventilation
  • Shock
  • Irritable temperament
  • Seizures
  • Headaches, dizziness and disorientation
  • Weakness and fatigue
  • Nausea


The onset of a heat stroke is an emergency situation that requires advanced treatment from medical professionals immediately. While waiting assistance, treatment options include:

  • Full water immersion to rapidly and aggressively cool the body
  • Externally cooling the body with fans and/or wet towels or ice packs placed in the underarms, base of neck, foreheat, and/or groin

Treatment can be stopped once the body’s internal temperature has decreased to 30°C.

Certain populations are more likely to suffer from heat illnesses than others, notably the elderly, and prepubescent age children. Other risk contributors include sweat gland dysfunction, dehydration and obesity, since this condition reduces the ability to dissipate heat.


Drs. Marco and Paolo De Ciantis are chiropractic doctors and co-owners of Sports Specialist Rehab Centre. As specialists in pain prevention, the identical twins work with a range of patients to help them improve performance, make day-to-day living more comfortable, and optimize well-being.

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