Heat Stroke Deaths of Children in Cars Is on the Rise

Heat stroke is leading cause of non-crash, vehicle-related deaths in children under the age of 15. Here's how to prevent it.

Although the continual evolution of safety features has made vehicles significantly safer, one car-related fatality statistic is increasing: child heat stroke victims. In 2018 and 2019, there were 53 and 52 pediatric vehicular heat stroke deaths, respectively. Those represent the highest two yearly totals on record. And with climate change causing an ever-increasing rise in global temperatures, the potential for more heat stroke deaths is only rising.

Here’s a closer look at pediatric vehicular heat stroke and how to prevent tragedy from occurring.

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What is Heat Stroke?

Heat stroke is clinically defined as when a person’s body temperature is exceeding 104° F, causing their thermoregulatory mechanism to become overwhelmed. Children are particularly susceptible to heatstroke because their thermoregulatory systems are not as efficient as an adult’s. This causes their body temperatures to warm three to five times faster. (The thermoregulatory systems in pets are also very different than an adult’s, causing hyperthermia to occur rapidly.)

When a person’s core body temperature reaches 107°, the body’s cells become damaged. This results in internal organs shutting down and can rapidly lead to death.

Signs of Heat Stroke

When a child’s core temperature rises, they will begin to experience a number of symptoms. These can include dizziness, disorientation, agitation, confusion, sluggishness and even hallucinations. Other signs of heat stroke include hot dry skin that is flushed but not sweaty, rapid heart beat and loss of consciousness.

If the child is in pain or not responsive, get the child out of the car and call 911 immediately. If you’re able to, spray the child with cool water. Stay with them until help arrives.

Heat Stroke Prevention

Just 10 minutes can be the difference between life and death, or a healthy child and one who has suffered brain damage. Any parent or caregiver, even a very loving and attentive one, can forget a child is in the back seat. Being especially busy or distracted, or having a change from the usual routine increases the risk. The American Academy of Pediatrics provides the following heat stroke prevention measures adults should take:

  • Be extra alert when there is a change in your routine, like when someone else is driving your child or you take a different route to work or child care. Often tragedies occur when a different parent is dropping off at daycare. They drive their route to work or go on with their typical routine and forget their child in the vehicle.
  • Always check the back seat and make sure all children are out of the car before locking it and walking away.
  • Avoid distractions while driving, especially cell phone use.
  • Have your child care provider call if your child is more than 10 minutes late.
  • Put your cell phone, bag or purse in the back seat, so you check the back seat when you arrive at your destination.
  • If someone else is driving your child, always check to make sure he has arrived safely.
  • Keep your car locked when it is parked to prevent a curious child from entering when no one is around. Many hot car deaths have occurred when a child mistakenly locks themselves inside.
  • Make sure children do not have easy access to your car keys. Store them out of a child’s reach.
  • Teach children that cars are not safe places to play.
  • Keep rear fold-down seats closed to prevent a child from crawling into the trunk from inside the car.
  • Remind children that cars, especially car trunks, should not be used for games like hide-and-seek.

For more safety information, visit AAA.com/Community.


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2 Thoughts on “Heat Stroke Deaths of Children in Cars Is on the Rise

  1. An important topic that is poorly handled here. How on earth can Maine, one of our most northern states have a higher rate of heat stroke than many of its more southern neighbors? Second, why does the article not even mention the possibility of leaving the windows open – especially a sunroof windown if you have one. I do this for my dog all the time.

    1. Hi Emily, thanks for reading and for your comments. Believe it or not, Maine does have a higher heat stroke rate than many states to its south (Source). Its important to remember that heat stroke can occur even in fairly mild temperatures. You bring up an interesting point about windows. Unfortunately, opening a window has been found to do very little to lower temperatures in cars. Here is a study published in a pediatric medical journal that details this. Every leading safety organization states that children or pets should never be left alone in a car.

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