Risks and Prevention of Leaving Your Baby or Pet in a Hot Car

Temperatures may soar outside, yet the heat inside the closed space of a car climbs quicker than anyone may realize. According to Stanford University researchers, a car’s interior on a sunny day can heat up by an average of 40 degrees Fahrenheit within an hour. So, a comfortable outside temperature of 80 degrees can become a scorching 120 degrees inside a closed car in a short period of time.

Unfortunately, we hear about pets and children forgotten in cars during the summer. Hurried adults unknowingly forget about their passenger or may think leaving them unattended for a short amount of time is harmless.

In only minutes, that poor judgment can result in devastating consequences: death from heatstroke. On average, 38 children die from heat-related deaths each year as a result of being trapped inside vehicles. Children from babies to age 4 are particularly vulnerable. Heatstroke is a true medical emergency that damages the brain and internal organs. If left untreated, it can be deadly.

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Understanding Heat-Related Illnesses

Heat illness is broken down into three categories:

  • Heat cramps: Painful cramps of the abdominal muscles, arms or legs.
  • Heat exhaustion: Dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headaches, weakness, muscle pain and sometimes unconsciousness.
  • Heat stroke: A temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit or higher and severe symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, seizures, disorientation or delirium, lack of sweating, shortness of breath, rapid and shallow breathing, unconsciousness and coma.

Heat stroke results from extended exposure to high temperatures – often combined with dehydration leading to the failure of the body’s temperature control system. Early signs of dehydration include fatigue, thirst, dry lips and tongue, lack of energy and feeling overheated. Waiting until one is thirsty, however, means he or she already is dehydrated.

The main symptom of heatstroke is a core body temperature of 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Fainting or passing out could be the first sign your child is in trouble. If a child is unresponsive or unable to communicate, call 911 immediately. Other symptoms to look for include:

  • Throbbing headache
  • Dizziness and light-headedness
  • Red, hot and dry skin
  • Muscle weakness or cramps
  • Rapid heartbeat, which may be either strong or weak
  • Behavioral changes such as confusion, disorientation or unsteady
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness

When the temperatures climb outside, so can the heat index. How hot a person feels is determined by both heat and humidity combined.  A relative humidity of 60 percent or more negatively effects how well you sweat, which is the body’s ability to cool itself. The risk of any heat-related illness increases significantly when the heat index reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit or more. Remember that just as it feels cooler in the shade on a 90-degree day, it’s going to feel hotter when exposed to full sunshine so take necessary precautions in and out of automobiles.

Take These Steps to Prevent a Heat-Related Tragedy

  • Before you exit your car, always check the backseat. Children may be quiet or have fallen asleep during the drive. Sometimes parents on autopilot and think about the day ahead and may even forget to drop the child off at school or daycare.
  • If running errands, never leave a child in the car alone for obvious safety reasons, but especially during hot and humid weather. Remember it only takes minutes for a child’s body to overheat and babies are buckled into their car seats and cannot exit the vehicle if necessary.
  • Create a visual reminder that a child is a passenger in your car either by placing a note on your dashboard or by using a stuffed animal in the front seat. When you see a toy or other object that represents a child in your car, you won’t forget he or she is in the back seat.
  • Everyone involved in caring for a child should be aware of their whereabouts – from the other parent or partner to grandparents, babysitters and schools. If your child does not show up as scheduled, that individual should call and notify you to ensure the child’s safety.
  • Don’t forget to lock your car when it’s not in use. Children can crawl inside a car that has been sitting in the driveway or garage and remain unseen until it’s too late. If a child goes missing, always check the car (including the trunk) and any other confined spaces without air circulation. Minutes count and children may not realize that they could become trapped when entering a small or hot space.

If the unthinkable occurs and you suspect heatstroke or find a child inside of a car, call 911 immediately. While waiting for medical attention, first aid should be administered to cool the child’s body. Remove clothing, seek shade and fan or apply cool compresses to the child’s body to bring the core temperature down.

Protect Yourself and Your Children from Heat-Related Illnesses

It’s also important to educate kids on how they can protect themselves and each other during hot weather. Tips for avoiding dehydration, heat exhaustion or heat stroke are simple.

  • Drink plenty of fluids before and during any activity (sports or recreation) in hot, sunny weather. Dark colored urine indicates dehydration. It should be a pale yellow.
  • Wear light-colored, loose clothing in warm weather.
  • Limit outdoor activities that require a lot of exertion during the hottest hours of the day.
  • Wear sunscreen of SPF 30 or higher
  • Seek air conditioning or shelter if feeling overheated.

If you suspect your child may be suffering from heatstroke, immediately to the closest emergency department for medical treatment.

About UPMC Pinnacle

UPMC Pinnacle is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Pinnacle includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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