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Danger: Kids Left in Hot Cars

Expert tips for keeping your kids safe from heat stroke in cars.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Every summer, heartbreaking and preventable deaths happen when children are left alone in hot cars. More than 600 U.S. children have died that way since 1990, according to the nonprofit safety group Kids and Cars. 

These cases happen when kids are left unattended in a hot car -- sometimes because the driver forgot the child was there -- or when kids get into unlocked cars without any adult knowing it happened. Within minutes, they can be in danger. 

Kids in Hot Cars

-Never leave kids alone in a hot car, even briefly.

-Always check the front and back seats of the car before you lock it and leave.

-See a kid alone in a hot car? Call 911 immediately. Get them out ASAP if they are in distress.

-Put your purse, briefcase, or something else you need by the car seat so you don’t forget to check.

-Always lock your car when it’s empty so kids can’t get in without you knowing.

SOURCE: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Here is what you must know:

1. No Exceptions, No Matter How Brief

Some parents may not want to take their child in and out of their cumbersome car seat for what they believe will be a quick stop. But the stakes are too high.

"It is never OK to leave kids or pets in a car -- even with the windows down,”  says Christopher McStay, MD, an emergency room doctor and assistant professor of emergency medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center. “It is an absolute no-no."

McStay has seen his share of hot car casualties in the emergency room. “Your car is a greenhouse and temperatures can get exceedingly hot in an exceedingly short period of time," he says.

“There is no safe amount of time to leave children alone in the car,” says Nathan Allen, MD, an emergency medicine doctor at the University of Chicago. “Kids are more susceptible and at higher risk for heat-related illness and injury than adults because their bodies make more heat relative to their size and their abilities to cool through sweating are not as developed as adults.” 

As a result, just a few minutes can be extremely dangerous -- even fatal -- for a small child.

2. Know What Can Go Wrong

“Parents leave children in a car for lack of understanding about how sick they can get and how quickly they can get sick," says Christopher Haines, DO, director of pediatric emergency medicine at St. Christopher's Hospital for Children in Philadelphia.

“On a day that is just 72 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature [inside a car] can increase by 30 to 40 degrees in an hour, and 70% of this increase occurs the first 30 minutes,” he says.

Heat stroke may occur when body temperature passes 104 degrees Fahrenheit. That overwhelms the brain's temperature control, causing symptoms such as dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness, seizure, loss of consciousness, and/or death.

3. Bystander? Get Involved

If you see a child alone in a hot vehicle, call 911 immediately, advises the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "If they are in distress due to heat, get them out as quickly as possible," states the NHTSA's web site. 

Unfortunately, some child carriers have hoods, so you can’t tell if there is a child in the seat. Developing alarm systems that sound if a child’s seat belt is left fastened when the door shuts may be helpful in the future, McStay says. 

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