By Drs. Sally Robinson and Keith Bly

Every year there are new reports of children dying after being left in cars for hours in hot weather. In fact, every year an average of 25 children die after being left or getting trapped in hot vehicles.

The inside of a car can heat up very quickly – even when the temperature outdoors is mild. On an especially hot day, the interior of a car can heat up to 122 degrees Fahrenheit in less than 20 minutes, and within 40 minutes, it can get so hot that a child left inside a car for that length of time can die. Even leaving the window of the car open slightly does not do enough to keep the temperature safe for a child.

Young children, especially infants, are more sensitive to heat than adults are because their bodies do not regulate temperature as well as adults’ bodies. A child left in a hot car can suffer from heat stress, dehydration and shock.

Heat stress occurs when sweat cannot evaporate quickly enough to keep the body cool. Symptoms of heat stress include muscle cramps, headache, dizziness, nausea and vomiting. Heat stress can lead to dehydration because of fluid loss due to excess sweating. To “go into shock” means that the body’s blood pressure gets too low to pump oxygenated blood to all of the tissues in the body and cells in major organs, such as the brain, heart, liver and kidneys can die. These organs can be permanently damaged.

Please remember:

• Never leave a child alone in a car – even with the windows down. In Texas, parents can be charged with negligence and child endangerment for leaving a child alone in a car.
• Take your children inside with you rather than leaving them in a running vehicle. A thief may see a running car as an open invitation to steal the car, whether your child is in it or not.
• Teach your children not to play in or around cars.
• Lock car doors when you exit them and keep your keys out of your child’s reach.
• Double-check to make sure that everyone has exited the car when you arrive at your destination. It’s worth looking twice to make sure that you have removed your child from the car, especially if you have other items to carry inside. Though this may seem silly, children have died because they had fallen asleep in their car seats and their parents did not realize they were still in the car.
• Carry plenty of water when traveling with children.
• If your car has been parked outside on a hot day, consider placing a towel on the car seats so that they do not burn your child. Consider purchasing window shades for both the front and rear windows of the car. Also, make sure that restraints, such as buckles on a car seat, are not too hot.
• Keep the trunk locked at all times to prevent a child from crawling inside and getting trapped.
• Keep rear seats that fold down upright to ensure that your child does not crawl from the passenger area into the trunk.
• Teach older children how to unlock the door of a car if they become trapped inside.

If you see a child alone in a car, find the child’s parents or call 911.

Dr. Sally Robinson is a pediatrician in the division of children’s special services at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. She teaches medical students about caring for children with chronic medical conditions. Dr. Keith Bly is a hospitalist and assistant professor of pediatrics at UTMB.

The Your Health column is written by health and medical experts at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston. The column focuses on topical health issues that we believe are of interest to your readers. It is e-mailed every Tuesday. If you have any questions about the column, or would like to suggest topics, please contact John Koloen, media relations specialist, at (409) 772-8790 or email jskoloen@utmb.edu.