Extreme heat can be dangerous for kids. Here's how to keep them safe in high temperatures.

It's hot out there. Here's how to keep kids safe. (Getty Images)
It's hot out there. Here's how to keep kids safe. (Getty Images)

Summer 2023 saw record-breaking heat, and, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, 90% of the 120,000 heat-related emergency room visits in the United States last year took place during the months of May and September. CDC data also shows an increase in heat-related ER visits among those under the age of 18.

Amid calls for schools to set threshold temperature guidelines so that children aren't engaging in outdoor physical activity during extreme heat or cold, pediatricians share their advice for keeping kids cool. Here's their advice for dealing with extreme heat, and the risks it poses for children.

Anyone can be affected by high temperatures, but they can be especially tough on children, Dr. Daniel Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "Kids are not good at regulating their temperature," he says.

Dr. Tracy Zaslow, a pediatrician and primary care sports medicine specialist at Cedars-Sinai Kerlan-Jobe Institute in Los Angeles, agrees. "Kids' bodies produce heat faster than adults and they can't get rid of that heat as quickly," she explains. As a result, children can get sick in extreme heat, and do so faster than many adults, she says.

Extreme heat can cause a range of potential health issues, including dehydration, heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke — a medical emergency, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warns. Children may also become more irritable than usual in heat, the organization says.

The AAP says that a heat index at or above 90 degrees poses a "significant health risk" to kids. Zaslow recommends that families use the heat index to make decisions about whether or not to go outside, if they can.

When the heat index is high and there isn't air conditioning at home, Zaslow suggests taking kids someplace that's cool indoors, like a local shopping mall, library or cooling center. "Even spending an hour or two in air conditioning can help," she says. Electric fans can be helpful, too, but if the temperature is 90 degrees or above, it may not prevent heat illness, Zaslow says. "It just circulates the hot air at that point," she says.

In 2024 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention launched a Heat & Health Tracker which offers local heat and health information, including rates of emergency department visits for heat illness in your area.

If you need to go outside and temperatures are high, pediatricians say there are a few things you can do to keep your child safe.

  • Dress a child appropriately. Loose clothes, lightweight fabrics and lighter colors are best for staying cool, Zaslow says.

  • Push the hydration. "Make sure your child is drinking throughout the day," Zaslow says. If getting a child to have water is tough on a typical day, she suggests putting fruit in their water for flavoring, offering foods with high water content (like watermelon and cucumbers) and encouraging them to drink through a straw. "Kids tend to drink more through a straw," she explains. It's also important to encourage children to drink throughout the day — not just when they become thirsty, Kelley Miller, injury prevention coordinator at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital, tells Yahoo Life.

  • Feel surfaces before allowing a child to touch them. Car seat buckles and railings can get incredibly hot in extreme temperatures, Ganjian points out. "Touch the surfaces first to make sure they won't burn your child," he says.

  • Take a cool shower or bath. If a child seems hot or there's no air conditioning, Miller recommends cooling off with a cold or lukewarm shower or bath.

  • Try to avoid peak heat hours. "You want to limit outdoor activities to times when it's coolest," Zaslow says. Miller adds that "playing in early morning or evening hours and avoiding strenuous activity between the sun’s hottest hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is best."

  • Avoid the playground when it's especially hot. Many older playgrounds are on or around asphalt surfaces, which can reflect heat and feel hotter than other areas, Zaslow says. The equipment itself can be problematic, too. "Surfaces that absorb heat, like slides and other metal equipment, have recorded temperatures up to 189 degrees which is hot enough to burn hands and feet," Miller says.

  • Slather on sunscreen. Not only will sunscreen protect a child's skin, it can help keep them cool. "If you get sunburned, it's harder to cool your body down," Zaslow says.

  • Lock car doors when a vehicle isn't in use. Temperatures inside a parked car can quickly soar, creating a dangerous environment for children, Ganjian says. "Make sure whenever you park your car in a driveway, the doors are locked," he says. "Kids like to play in cars and could get trapped inside."

  • Try to spend time in water. "Anything with water is great," Zaslow says, who encourages families visiting the beach to get in the water — not just be around it.

The AAP recommends keeping an eye out for the following signs of heat illness in a child:

  • Feeling faint

  • Extreme tiredness

  • Headache

  • Fever

  • Intense thirst

  • Not urinating for many hours

  • Nausea

  • Vomiting

  • Breathing faster or deeper than normal

  • Skin numbness or tingling

  • Muscle aches

As for how long is too long to play outside in higher temperatures, Ganjian says it really depends on the heat index and how well a child seems to tolerate the weather. "If your child looks hot — they have pink cheeks, are very sweaty or are getting more fussy than usual — those are signs that your child is overheating," he says. "You need to get them in air conditioning if that happens."

This article was originally published on July 10, 2023 and has been updated.