There is nothing sadder than hearing about a baby or child, or anyone, dying a preventable death. A death caused by hyperthermia is such a death. Unfortunately, it is happening too often.
Our body temperature can rise as a result of an activity we are doing or it can rise because the environmental temperature is higher than our body temperature. Adults can usually recognize early symptoms of becoming overheated and change their behavior. Babies and children do not have that luxury when they are left in a car.
The body goes through approximately five stages before death occurs from hyperthermia.
The first symptom is called “heat fatigue.” It is a general feeling of weakness. The skin would be moist from sweat and one would feel faint.
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The second stage is “heat syncope.” This is when one suddenly feels dizzy; the pulse is weak as the heart beats rapidly trying to distribute blood throughout the body. The body temperature could still be normal at this point.
Next stage is referred to as “heat cramps.” As the body sweats it loses salt. This then affects the calcium levels in the skeletal muscles causing them to cramp up. I have seen people suffering from these cramps while working in the medical tents at marathons. The pain is intense and unrelenting.
Heat exhaustion is the most common hyperthermia illness suffered by athletes. The symptoms would be excessive thirst, weakness, nausea and inappropriate behavior. It is the stage that can lead to the most dangerous of all hyperthermia illnesses: heat stroke.
Heat stroke is when the body temperature reaches 104. The person can be confused, combative, have a strong and rapid pulse, be cramping, vomit, have a severe headache and stop sweating. It is at this point where the body has lost the ability to control its temperature. Death can occur.
Since 1998, 513 children have died of hyperthermia after being left in a car. Twenty-one have died so far this year, according to a study by Jan Null, San Francisco State University for Safe Kids USA.
It doesn’t take long for the temperature in a car to rise. On average it takes, on a day when it is 80 degrees outside, 10 minutes for the inside temperature of the car to reach 99 degrees, 30 minutes for the temperature to reach 114 degrees. At 50 minutes the inside temperature would be 120 degrees.
To protect your child the No. 1 thing to do is never leave them unattended in a car, not even for a minute. Do not let your child play in the car and keep the keys out of reach. If you take your child to a day care, make sure they have a phone number where you can be reached if your child is not delivered to the day care.
If you ever see a child in a car unattended, first open the door of the car if you can. Then call 911. Stay with the child until help arrives.
The majority of children dying from hyperthermia were simply forgotten. The pain and anguish of the person who left them in the car is immense.
I recently read an article titled “Fatal Distraction.” It is a heart rendering story of a father who forgot he was transporting his child to day care and left him in the car all day. One of the law enforcement people that were interviewed for the article said that he will never forget the child that tore out all of her hair as she struggled in the car seat before she died.
Let us all be aware, especially here in Florida, that we need to respect that fact that exposure to high temperatures can cause illness and sometimes even an unnecessary death.
Katie Powers, R.N., is a board-certified lactation consultant and perinatal educator at Manatee Memorial Hospital’s Family BirthPlace.