Don’t miss the signs of heat exhaustion in children

Posted on 3 December 2018

Heat exhaustion can be scary—and kids are at increased risk. Learn how to spot and prevent this common condition. 

Warmer weather invariably means fun in the sun. But when temperatures (and humidity levels) soar, spending too much time at the beach, in the pool or at the park can put you – and your family – at risk for heat-related illnesses.

What is heat exhaustion?

Heat exhaustion occurs when your body overheats in response to external factors, like high temperatures. Although it can happen to anyone, it’s common in athletes who exercise outdoors during extreme summer weather. Spending too long in a hot car or another indoor area that isn’t air-conditioned can also trigger this condition. And babies, toddlers, and older adults are more susceptible because they are not able to regulate their body temperature efficiently.

Obvious signs of heat exhaustion

As Dr Jennie Bruwer, a general practitioner at Mediclinic Upington explains, obvious signs of heat exhaustion include:

  • Pale skin
  • Sweating
  • Muscle cramps
  • Giddiness
  • A headache
  • Palpitations
  • Dark-coloured urine
  • Fainting

What to do if you suspect heat exhaustion

“While heat exhaustion isn’t as serious as heat stroke [Internal link to heat stroke December Infohub content], it’s important to bring down the body temperature as quickly as possible to prevent further complications,” says Dr Bruwer.

If your child shows any tell-tale signs:

  • Take them out of the sun immediately
  • Remove layers of clothing
  • Sponge them down with cool water
  • Offer them liquids to rehydrate.

“If symptoms worsen, or if they do not improve in 20-30 minutes despite the above treatment, seek medical attention to avoid progression to heat stroke,” says Dr Bruwer.

Remember that unless you are very alert, you might not recognise the signs of heat exhaustion in youngsters because they can’t tell their parents or caregivers about their discomfort. “Infants may just be cranky in the heat which parents may consider normal and ignore,” Dr Bruwer explains.

Preventative measures

Rather take preventative steps this summer. Encourage play in the shade, ensure everyone is getting enough to drink and that youngsters wear light, breathable clothing.

In addition, never leave your child unattended in the car and never place a towel or blanket over a car seat or pram to shelter him from the sun. This actually reduces airflow and can cause him to overheat.

Fortunately, patients with heat exhaustion usually recover within 30 minutes of treatment and have no further issues. If the symptoms worsen or don’t improve, seek medical help immediately.

3 Things you need to protect yourself from the sun that isn’t sunblock

Heat exhaustion vs. heat stroke

Heat exhaustion symptoms Heat stroke symptoms
general weakness elevated body temperature above  (40C)*
increased heavy sweating rapid and strong pulse or heart rate
a weak but faster pulse or heart rate loss or change of consciousness
nausea or vomiting hot, red, dry, or moist skin
possible fainting
pale, cold, clammy skin



* It is therefore very important for a health professional to measure the core temperature (e.g. rectally).


In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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