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When a heat wave recently hit Edmonton, Canada, Jennifer Abma kept her two young daughters inside, safely away from the sweltering 90-degree temperatures. Everything seemed fine until Anastasia, 3, went to her bedroom for a nap after playing with her 1-year-old sister, Ariel.
Ninety minutes later, when it was time to get Anastasia up from her nap, the toddler wouldn't wake up. Her mother panicked.
“She was sweating and swollen and red,” Jennifer told TODAY. “It was awful.”
Anastasia’s bedroom felt excessively hot, so Jennifer called paramedics. When they arrived, they discovered that Anastasia's body temperature was 104 F, with the temperature in the bedroom about 122 F. The little girl's blood sugar was low: she was experiencing heatstroke.
The paramedics orally gave her sugar and, eventually, Anastasia opened her eyes.
“It took 15 minutes to wake her,” Jennifer said. “She got really, really lucky. She was probably minutes away from permanent damage.”
Anastasia was frightened of the strangers in her room, but otherwise seemed like her normal self. The paramedics told Jennifer that allowing Anastasia to sleep in a hot room was almost the same as leaving her in a car on a hot day.
“It is not something you would think of happening in your kid’s bedroom,” she said. “You blame yourself. ‘Why did I let her go nap by herself?’”
The town in northwestern Canada rarely sees temperatures over 80 and Jennifer's house doesn’t have air conditioning. The window was open and the blinds were closed, but without a fan, there was not enough air circulating in the room. The 23-year-old single mother was mortified her daughter suffered heatstroke in her own house, but shared the experience on Instagram.
“Hopefully other parents can take something from this & make sure you are checking the rooms in your house because they can be as dangerous as a hot car,” she wrote.
Infants and young children, as well as the elderly, have more difficulty regulating their body temperature and are at special risk of heatstroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
'It doesn't take long'
In the summer, especially when it is humid, heat exhaustion and heatstroke can be common, said Dr. Mike Patrick, an emergency room pediatrician at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, who did not treat Anastasia. Humidity makes it harder for the sweat to evaporate, which is important for cooling the body.
“Even within 10 minutes in a hot closed-up [space], you can really max out your body’s ability to cool itself off. It doesn’t take long,” said Patrick, who also hosts a podcast about children’s health, called Pediacast.
When the sweat fails to evaporate, people become dehydrated, which causes imbalances with electrolytes and sugar. That’s when things become dangerous. These imbalances can cause heart arrhythmias and heart attacks.
“The mechanisms you need to keep cool are not able to keep up,” he said.
Most times, parents notice their children are ill before heat exhaustion turns into heatstroke, which occurs when the body temperature raises above 104 degrees.
Signs of heat exhaustion or heatstroke:
- Excessive sweating
- Unusual sleepiness
If someone is experiencing heat exhaustion:
- Give them fluids. Water is normally OK, but if it seems like symptoms are lasting a long time, a sports drink is better.
- Get them out of the sun. The heat makes it tougher for people to cool off.
- Avoid sunburns. “The area that has sunburn is going to be less effective at sweating,” Patrick said.
- Place them in front of a fan or in a breeze. The moving air helps the sweat evaporate and promotes cooling.
The good news? It’s often reversible.
“Most of the time, getting into a cool spot and drinking fluid is going to reverse that process pretty quickly,” Patrick said.