The number of heat stroke deaths of children being left unattended in vehicles in the United States has steadily trended upward and 2010 was the worst year on record. According to Safe Kids USA, since recordkeeping began in 1998 there have been at least 494 of these needless tragedies.
Hyperthermia (heat-stroke) is the leading cause of non-crash vehicle deaths for children under the age of 14.
It is surprising to note these heartbreaking incidents can occur on days with relatively mild temperatures. Children have died from heat stroke in a vehicle with outside temperatures as low as 57 degrees. The temperature inside a vehicle can reach life-threatening temperatures rapidly. In just 10 minutes, a car’s interior temperature can rise by 19 degrees. Between one and two hours, it can rise 45–50 degrees. Leaving the windows cracked does not make a significant difference, so it is not an okay compromise.
People also might be surprised to learn some of the people who accidentally leave their children in the car are not the inattentive parents you might expect. A parent who is distracted might inadvertently leave a child in the car. A caregiver who is not the person usually responsible for the child can forget there is a child in the car, especially if the child is quiet or sleeping. We suggest to all parents and caregivers you place an item you need in the back seat, next to the baby, as soon as you put the baby in the car seat.
It is important to note a child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s. Heat stroke occurs when a person’s temperature exceeds 104 degrees and their body’s temperature regulating system is overwhelmed.
Symptoms of hyperthermia include:
Hot skin that is flushed, but not sweaty
Loss of consciousness
A core body temperature of 107 degrees is considered lethal, as cells are damaged and internal organs shut down.
Cases of death from hyperthermia in vehicles have happened to children from newborn to age 14. More than half of these deaths have occurred in children under the age of two.
Tips from Safe Kids USA and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration include:
Never leave infants or children unattended in a vehicle — even if the windows are partly open or the engine is running and the air conditioning is on.
Don’t let children play in an unattended vehicle. Teach them a vehicle is not a play area.
Ask your childcare center to call you if your child doesn’t arrive on time for child care.
Make a habit of looking in the vehicle — front and back — before locking the door and walking away.
Take steps to remember not to leave a child in a vehicle, such as:
Write yourself a note and place it where you’ll see it when you leave the vehicle.
Place your purse, briefcase or something else you’re sure to need in the back seat so you’ll be sure to see a child left in the vehicle.
Keep an object in the car seat, such as a stuffed toy. Once the child is buckled in, place the object where the driver will notice it when he or she leaves the vehicle.
Always lock vehicle doors and trunks and keep keys out of children’s reach. If a child is missing, check the vehicle first, including the trunk.
Call 911 immediately if you see a child left alone in a hot vehicle. When children are in distress due to heat, get them out of the vehicle as quickly as possible.
Ask Children’s Hospital is provided as an educational service. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Contact your primary care physician or other qualified health care provider for specific medical advice, diagnosis and treatment.
About Emily Marr
Safe Kids Midlands Coordinator Emily Marr is a native of South Carolina and attended the University of South Carolina before graduating from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She and her husband enjoy scuba diving and spending time with their three rescue puppies. For more information about Safe Kids programs, visit www.safekidsmidlands.org or call (803) 434-2955.
About Children’s Hospital
Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital was the first children’s hospital in South Carolina. Children’s Hospital has more than 30 pediatric subspecialties including pulmonology, cardiology, surgery, oncology, nephrology, neonatology, radiology anesthesiology, endocrinology, infectious diseases, critical care and others. A major pediatric referral center for children from all 46 counties in South Carolina, Children’s Hospital treats more than 80,000 children each year. For more information, visit www.palmettohealth.org/childrenshospital.