Hyperthermia: When summer suns turns deadly

Far too many children have lost their lives from hyperthermia – heat stroke – as they were trapped in a hot car, often inadvertently forgotten by their busy parents or caregivers.

Far too many children have lost their lives from hyperthermia – heat stroke – as they were trapped in a hot car, often inadvertently forgotten by their busy parents or caregivers.

An average of 38 children die every year from hyperthermia, or heat stroke, when trapped inside a vehicle on a warm day. These deaths can happen at any time of the year, but are most common in the warm summer months. Although most parents and caregivers think it could never happen to them, more than 52 percent of these tragic deaths are found to be accidents.

As many parents understand, life with young children is full of stress, lack of sleep and distractions. It can happen to anyone, to the best of parents; it has happened to a social worker, a teacher, a police officer, a veterinarian, and sadly, many more responsible adults have simply forgotten to take their child out of the car leaving them behind in a stifling vehicle. A change in the parents routine, perhaps a stop on the way to work that is different than normal, or the car seat being moved to a different spot in the vehicle, is cited as the most common reason for these tragic deaths.

In 2012, the fourth over-heating death of the summer season occurred on Monday, June 11, in Philadelphia as temperatures soared into the mid-90’s. The child, only three years old, was accidentally forgotten in a vehicle for several hours. Police do not suspect foul play.

According to data compiled by Kids in Cars, 87 percent of these tragic deaths occur in children under the age of three, and 31 percent are in infants under the age of one. These children are most commonly secured in a child restraint in the back seat of a vehicle, unable to get out on their own, and as previously highlighted, is most commonly a case of the child being accidentally forgotten.

The 2010 Pulitzer Prize winning article, “Fatal Distraction” by Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post looks further into this tragic issue. Beyond the 52 percent of children who were mistakenly forgotten in the vehicle, 30 percent of deaths occur when children have accidently become trapped in a vehicle while playing inside of it. Only 17 percent of deaths occur when children are intentionally left in the vehicle by their parent or caregivers.

As the thermometer climbs, the temperature inside a closed vehicle can rise to a deadly level in just minutes. Even on a relatively mild day, the car acts as a greenhouse, increasing the temperature in the closed space as much as 20 degrees in less than 10 minutes. Furthermore, children’s bodies heat up much more quickly than adults – three to five times faster – making them less able to withstand the high temperatures.

This summer, and in the future, take steps to ensure the safety of your child and of those you care for. For specific measures you can take, see “Hyperthermia: Take action to protect children from heat stroke.”

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