The Danger of Heatstroke


Did you know that in the US, excessive heat is the leading weather-related killer, averaging over 100 deaths a year, according to the National Weather Service? Although heatstroke death and injury might seem unlikely in New York’s North Country and Vermont, there have been five in-vehicle child heatstroke fatalities in upstate New York since 2007, when caregivers unintentionally left their child in the car. There have also been adult heatstroke deaths in our region, in and outside the home, including at least seven in Vermont since 2015.

While not large numbers, each death was a tragedy that may have been preventable. Let’s examine some heatstroke prevention steps and how to respond to heat-related illness.

In the car

  • Never leave a child, vulnerable adult, or pet in the car. Vehicles heat up quickly and to dangerous temperatures. On a day in the low 80’s, the car temperature can be over 100 degrees in less than 10 minutes!
  • Keep a parked vehicle locked and key fobs out of reach so kids don’t get in on their own.
  • Loving, capable parents and caregivers can make a mistake, so create reminders: an alert on your cell phone or something in back seat to prompt you to open the back door at your destination. Ask your childcare provider to call if your child doesn’t arrive when expected.

If you see a child, unresponsive adult, or animal in a vehicle, call 911. Vermont law protects someone who forcibly enters a vehicle to rescue a child or animal. Fast action could save a life.

At home

  • If your house isn’t air-conditioned, go to a shopping mall, library or movie theater for a few hours. Check with your local health department to see if there are any cooling centers in your area.
  • Prepare foods that don’t require heating up your kitchen with your stove or oven. Try sandwiches with Crunchy Confetti Tuna or a snack of Cucumber Cups. Fresh fruit is always a great dessert and a healthy choice!
  • Keep shades/drapes/blinds closed to block out the sun.

At work

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) guidance on working in heat environments uses three key words: Water. Rest. Shade.

  • Begin your day well-hydrated. Drink water regularly to maintain hydration.
  • Take periodic rest breaks in the shade.
  • Don’t wait until you feel sick to cool down.
  • Discuss any safety concerns with your employer.

At play

  • Limit outdoor activity to cooler times of day, generally early morning or late evening.
  • Wear light colored, loose-fitting clothing made of natural fibers, such as cotton.
  • Use sunscreen. This protects your skin from long term effects of the sun’s radiation, but also prevents sunburn, which can affect your body’s ability to cool itself and cause dehydration.
  • Drink plenty of fluids (avoid alcoholic beverages) and take frequent rest breaks in the shade.
  • Both New York and Vermont have Heat Index Procedures for school sports.

When temperatures soar, monitor those at high risk: infants and young children, older adults and people with certain medical conditions. Heatstroke is a medical emergency. Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, rapid breathing and pulse. The skin may be dry, red or hot without sweating despite the heat. Move the person (or yourself) out of the heat. Remove clothing and sponge or mist with cool water. If the person is conscious give cool, but not cold, water. Call 9-1-1.

Maureen Johnson, CSP, CPST-I, is a Child Passenger Safety Specialist at the University of Vermont Medical Center.

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