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Whether it’s summer camp, climbing trees or going for a swim, for kids, summertime means a lot more time spent outside. But summer fun can quickly take a turn when rising temperatures, proximity to water and climbing on play structures results in illness or injury.
So what are the most common summertime illnesses and injuries to know about, and what can you do to prevent and treat them? We spoke with four pediatricians to find out—here’s what they had to say.
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Between barbecues and beach picnics, food poisoning is common in the summertime, says Lauren E. Rice, M.D., chief of pediatric emergency medicine at Tufts Children’s Hospital in Boston. “Summer gatherings are a great time to enjoy and share foods,” she says, noting that, “Higher temperatures and improper storage of foods can allow for germs (bacteria, viruses, parasites, toxins) to grow and thrive in foods. Symptoms of food poisoning include vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal discomfort and sometimes fever.”
If your child is dealing with a stomach bug or food poisoning, hydration is the most important thing. “Small sips of clear fluids, such as water, juice or electrolyte hydration drinks, given frequently, can help to replace some of the fluids being lost with vomiting and diarrhea,” says Dr. Rice. “Inability to stay hydrated, severe abdominal pain or decreased urination are a few symptoms that should prompt you to seek medical attention.” Blood in the stool is another reason to contact a doctor right away.
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Fun summertime activities like hiking, camping and more time outside can mean exposure to bugs like mosquitos and ticks. “Ticks and mosquitoes can spread infectious diseases, such as Lyme disease and West Nile virus (WNV) or Eastern Equine Encephalitis (EEE), respectively,” says Dr. Rice. Symptoms of Lyme disease can include fever, headache, fatigue and rash. While many people don’t actually display symptoms of West Nile Virus, symptoms can include fever, headaches, body aches, joint pain, vomiting, diarrhea or rash. Like West Nile virus, many people do not display symptoms of Eastern Equine Encephalitis, but some people will have fevers and severe cases can lead to swelling of the brain or meningitis.
When dealing with ticks, Dr. Rice suggests always doing a thorough check of your child after being outdoors. “Ticks should be removed quickly and cautiously,” she says. “Make sure to check out your child’s skin from head to toe after a day of play outdoors.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic is still ongoing, and COVID-19 doesn’t care much about the season. Tanya Altmann, M.D., a pediatrician based in southern California, says we shouldn’t expect COVID-19 to go anywhere when the weather warms up. “I assume we will see COVID this summer,” she says.
In the case of a classic virus that leads to cold-like symptoms (this can include COVID-19 for many kids), “encourage rest, oral fluids and give acetaminophen or ibuprofen as needed for fever or pain,” says Dr. Rice. “If your child is over the age of one year, honey is a sweet trick to soothe sore throats and control a cough.”
Infections caused by enteroviruses are higher in summer months, according to Alok Patel, M.D., a Stanford Children’s Health pediatric hospitalist. “Enteroviruses are a family of viruses and infections that can cause mild symptoms such as fever, general cold symptoms and diarrhea, but also could cause more severe symptoms, such as viral meningitis,” he says.
There is no specific treatment for enteroviruses, but you can treat symptoms by having your child drink plenty of fluids and giving them over-the-counter cold medications if necessary.
More exposure to heat in the summertime means a greater likelihood of heat-related illnesses. “Children who are playing out in the sun will sweat more and this can lead to faster dehydration,” says Dr. Rice. “Younger children may be more vulnerable to this and should be encouraged to drink water frequently. Signs of heat exhaustion include headache, dizziness, nausea and muscle cramps.”
And if your child is an athlete, you should be especially careful. “Athletes are at increased risk of heat-related illness and should be closely monitored, particularly during longer practices and camps that take place outdoors during peak sun hours with intense workout regimens,” she adds.
Heat exhaustion and dehydration should be treated promptly with resting in a cool, shaded area, drinking water and applying a cold, wet washcloth to the skin to help cool the body temperature down, according to Dr. Rice. “If heat exhaustion signs and symptoms are ignored, the child may develop a more serious heat-related illness, such as heat stroke, which can lead to a fast heartbeat, vomiting, severe headache, confusion, weakness and seizures,” she says. “Heat stroke is an emergency and the child should be brought to medical attention right away.”
Injuries due to falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries in kids, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), with approximately 2.8 million children going to the emergency room for injuries related to a fall each yearCDC Childhood Injury Report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Accessed 5/16/2022. . In the summertime, kids play outside more, which increases their risk of fall-related injuries, according to integrative pediatrician Joel Gator Warsh, M.D. “There are a lot of playground-type injuries, like falling off the slide or monkey bars,” he says. “And if you bang your head when you fall, you can get a concussion.”
Watching your child is key, as is being aware of what injuries can occur, says Dr. Warsh. It’s also important to make sure you have the right safety equipment, adds Dr. Rice.
“Helmets are a must,” she says. “Helmets should be worn whenever children are riding a bicycle, skateboard or scooter, even if only for a brief time or riding a short distance. Parents and other adults should model good behaviors by also wearing a helmet whenever they are riding bicycles, scooters or skateboards. Additional protective equipment, such as wrist, knee or elbow guards can be used to protect against broken bones.”
Sunburn is a very common summertime injury, according to Dr. Rice. “Regardless of skin type, we all must be cautious about avoiding too much sun exposure,” she says. “Protective clothing, sunglasses, hats and sunscreen should be used when outdoors. Young infants should not be in direct sunlight and may require additional gear such as tents and umbrellas to be shielded from the sun.”
Water-related injuries are very common in the summer months, says Dr. Rice. “We often see water injuries and drownings in both curious toddlers and risk-taking teens, but drowning can happen to anyone and is often silent and swift,” she explains. “It is important to pay attention to those little bodies of water such as kiddie pools, as even these can be dangerous.”
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There’s no doubt about it: There are a lot of potential summertime injuries and illnesses out there, which can feel overwhelming and scary to parents. And while some illnesses and injuries are simply inevitable, according to Dr. Rice, there are easy action steps to take to reduce the chances of your child getting sick or hurt.
“Many of the viruses and foodborne illnesses that circulate during the summer can be prevented with good handwashing and by avoiding sharing food/drinks and utensils,” she says. “Separate serving utensils and individual servings as well as proper storage of food at gatherings can help decrease the risk of these illnesses. Children (and adults) who are not feeling well should avoid parties and play areas.”
She adds that the use of masks can be beneficial in preventing the spread of many respiratory illnesses, especially in indoor spaces and large gatherings. “Keeping children up to date on their immunizations can help prevent illness, too,” she says. “This is particularly important if you are traveling abroad. If so, check the CDC website for recommended vaccines and health guidance in specific areas.”
If your child is dealing with a summertime injury or illness, you should never hesitate to call your doctor if you’re concerned.
“If your child is ill and symptoms are not improving with supportive care at home, or if your child’s symptoms are persistent, such as fever for longer than five days, you should seek care with your child’s pediatrician,” notes Dr. Rice. As a general rule of thumb, “if your child has sustained an injury that might require an x-ray or additional care, please seek assistance from a pediatric emergency department or urgent care,” she says. “Many pediatric emergency departments are available 24/7 and ready to help you and your child through the recovery process.”
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Leigh Weingus is a New York-based freelance writer and former senior editor at HuffPost, Elite Daily and Mindbodygreen. Her work has been featured in Well+Good, Glamour, Parade, Bustle, NBC News and more. When she's not writing, Leigh can be found taking a (virtual) yoga class, running in Central Park or whipping up her latest smoothie creation.