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Protecting Your Child From Dehydration and Heat Illness

With the hot days of summer come summer sports -- baseball, tennis, football practice -- both in the neighborhood and at camp. Before you send the kids out to practice -- or just for a long day of play in the sun -- learn to protect your child against the dangers of dehydration and heat illness. WebMD turned to Albert C. Hergenroeder, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of the sports medicine clinic at Texas Children's Hospital, for answers to parents' common questions.

1. What puts my child at risk for dehydration?

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The same things that put you at risk for dehydration: prolonged exposure to high temperatures, direct sun, and high humidity, without sufficient rest and fluids. The difference is that a child's body surface area makes up a much greater proportion of his overall weight than an adult's, which means children face a much greater risk of dehydration and heat-related illness.

2. What signs of dehydration should we watch for?

Early signs of dehydration include fatigue, thirst, dry lips and tongue, lack of energy, and feeling overheated. But if kids wait to drink until they feel thirsty, they're already dehydrated. Thirst doesn't really kick in until a child has lost 2% of his or her body weight as sweat.

Untreated dehydration can lead to three worse types of heat illness:

  • 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 104 or higher and severe symptoms, including nausea and vomiting, seizures, disorientation or delirium, lack of sweating, shortness of breath, unconsciousness, and coma.

Both heat exhaustion and heat stroke require immediate care. Heat stroke is a medical emergency that, when untreated, can be deadly. Any child with heat stroke should be rushed to the nearest hospital.

3. What can I do to prevent dehydration in my child?

Make sure they drink cool water and sports drinks early and often. Send your child out to practice or play fully hydrated. Then, during play, make sure your child takes regular breaks to drink fluid, even if your child isn't thirsty. A good size drink for a child, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics is 5 ounces of cold tap water or sports drink for a child weighing 88 pounds, and nine ounces for a teen weighing 132 pounds. One ounce is about two kid-size gulps.

Get them acclimatized before summer practice. "If you're going to send your kid off to tennis camp, they shouldn't be sitting around doing nothing in May and then going out to play tennis eight hours a day in June," says Hergenroeder. "They should be outdoors jogging, riding a bike, and otherwise slowly building up their fitness and ability to handle the heat." The fitter children are, the sooner their bodies will start to sweat after beginning to exercise -- and that's a good thing!

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