Children's Hospital Intensivists
Pediatric critical care physician Jason Peck, M.D., pediatric intensivist at Palmetto Health Children’s Hospital, has seen the tragic results of children being inadvertently left in hot cars. With high temperatures across much of the south, Peck reminds people that children have died from heat stroke in a vehicle with outside temperatures as low as 57 degrees Fahrenheit (F).
“A child’s body heats up three to five times faster than an adult’s body. The temperature inside a vehicle can reach life-threatening temperatures rapidly,” said Peck.
The number of heat stroke deaths of children being left unattended in vehicles in the United States has been steadily trending upward. Between 2003 and 2012, there were 384 heat related deaths due to children being left unattended in cars. Almost one-third of those deaths occurred at temperatures of less than 90 degrees. In addition to these deaths, it is estimated that hundreds of children annually will experience heat related illness due to being left unattended in cars. Results of heat illness can be severe and permanent.
Temperatures less than 70 degrees have been associated with internal temperature in cars reaching over 105 degrees. Leaving the window open does not affect how fast the temperature rises. On hot days the maximum temperature that a car will reach occurs within 15 minutes, and can reach temperature of 120-150 degrees.
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 acceptable compromise,” said Peck.
Hyperthermia (heat-stroke) is the leading cause of non-crash vehicle deaths for children under the age of 14. Heat stroke can occur when a person’s temperature exceeds 104 degrees F and their body’s temperature regulating system is overwhelmed.
Symptoms of hyperthermia include:
- Hot skin that is flushed, but not sweaty
- Loss of consciousness
- Rapid heartbeat
“Everyone thinks it couldn’t happen to them, but a parent who is distracted might inadvertently leave a child in the car,” Peck said. “A caregiver who is not the person usually responsible for the child can forget that there is a child in the car, especially if the child is quiet or sleeping.”
A core body temperature of 107 degrees F can be lethal, as cells may be 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 that a vehicle is not a play area.
- Ask your child care 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.
- Make a habit of looking into the cars parked near you in a parking lot.
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, phone 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.