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Dehydration and Heat Illness in Children

Children are more prone to dehydration and heat illness than adults because they have more body surface area per pound of weight. Young athletes, practicing hard in summer heat, are at particular risk. Learn to recognize the early warning signs of heat stress. Your knowledge could save a child's life.

Symptoms of Dehydration in Children

Symptoms of dehydration in children can include:

  • Thirst
  • Fatigue
  • Irritability
  • Dry mouth
  • Feeling hot

When children complain of thirst, feeling hot, or just seem irritable in the heat, they may have early dehydration. Get the child out of the sun into a cool, comfortable place. Have him start drinking plenty of cool fluids such as water or sports drinks. Sugary fruit juices or sodas with more than 8% carbohydrates are not absorbed as rapidly by the body. He should also take off any excess layers of clothing or bulky sports equipment. You can put cool, wet cloths on overheated skin.

If these symptoms are ignored, more serious heat illness such as heat exhaustion or heat stroke can occur.

Symptoms of Heat Illness With Dehydration in Kids

  • Heat cramps: Painful cramps of the abdominal muscles, arms, or legs.
  • Heat syncope: Weakness, fatigue, or fainting after exercising in heat.
  • Heat exhaustion: Profuse sweating, fatigue, headache, dizziness, loss of appetite, nausea, vomiting, chills, weakness, excessive thirst, muscle aches and cramps, vision problems, flushing, agitation or irritability, and sometimes unconsciousness.
  • Heat stroke: High body temperature (often it's 104°F-105°F or higher), nausea and vomiting; seizures; disorientation or delirium; hot, dry skin; unconsciousness; coma; shortness of breath; decreased urination; or blood in urine or stool.

Note that there are other illnesses that can occur when exposed to the heat, such as prickly heat (heat rash) or heat edema (swelling of the arms and legs), but those are not associated with dehydration.

Treating Heat Illness With Dehydration in Kids

There is a lot you can do for a child experiencing symptoms of a heat illness related to dehydration. First, call for help. Next, take the child to a cool, shady place and encourage her to drink plenty of liquids. If she is experiencing a milder heat illness, rest and rehydration with water or a sports drink may be all that's needed. More severe heat illnesses require immediate medical attention.


Heat cramps.Heat cramps are one of the mildest forms of heat illness. When a young athlete experiences heat cramps, pull her off the field into a cool area and gently stretch the affected muscle. "Have them drink, drink, drink, and then drink more," says Albert C. Hergenroeder, professor of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine and chief of the sports medicine clinic at Texas Children's Hospital

"High-sodium drinks will prevent children from getting heat cramps," says Jackie Berning, PhD, with the National Alliance for Youth Sports. "Gatorade has just enough sodium to prevent those cramps. But if you're a heavy sweater, and you're still getting cramps after drinking Gatorade, eat some salted pretzels or salted nuts. Those work fine." If the cramp goes away, the child can go back out to the game or practice but should be carefully monitored.

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