All children — no matter how well they're cared for — are at risk of dying in a hot vehicle, officials said after the death of a 3-year-old boy in Sweetwater, Tenn., last week.
At least 23 children have died from vehicular heatstroke this year, with the latest known death occurring after the boy wandered out of sight and into an unlocked car, becoming trapped.
Last year, 43 children in the United States died after being stuck in hot vehicles, including an 11-month-old girl who died in July in Chattanooga. Tennessee ranks No. 8 in the nation in child hot car deaths, with 31 fatalities since 1990, according to KidsAndCars.org.
"This is a touchy subject for parents," said Mollie Triplett, pediatric trauma program director for Children's at Erlanger. "They take it personally with this education and have the belief that this would never happen to them, or they would never put their child in this situation, so I think it's important to understand why it happens and that it can happen to anyone."
Changes in parent and caregiver routines are especially concerning, Triplett said.
"We're creatures of habit, and if one caregiver typically takes a child to school, and then it becomes someone else's responsibility, it is possible that the driver would forget that the child is in the car," she said, adding that people who transport children should set reminders for themselves, such as placing needed items such as purses and briefcases next to the child.
Children also can become trapped on their own, or because someone thought it would be OK to leave them.
"Sometimes parents or caregivers intentionally leave the child in the car with the 'I'll only be gone for a second' thought process, and then they get sidetracked," Triplett said. "Even when parents leave the car running and leave the air conditioning on, it's still not a safe situation. The car could shut off."
It is against the law in Tennessee for a person responsible for a child younger than 7 to knowingly leave that child in a vehicle without a supervisor who is at least 13 years old, even if the vehicle is running or keys are in the passenger area.
Heat stroke, a serious illness that can cause death or permanent disability, occurs when the body becomes unable to control its temperature due to overheating. Symptoms include fever, red skin, trouble sweating, elevated pulse, headache, dizziness, nausea, confusion and fainting.
"On an 80-degree day, within about 10 minutes the car temperature rises by about 19 degrees, and it just keeps getting hotter and more intense even when a window is rolled down a couple of inches," Triplett said.
Children are more susceptible to heat stroke, because their body temperature rises faster and is harder to regulate than an adult's. Older adults, overweight people or individuals on certain medications are also at a higher risk for heat-related illness.
Pets, too, can fall victim.
Last week, a video of people attempting to rescue a dog from a hot car in a Walmart parking lot in Trussville, Alabama, went viral. The dog died, and owner Stephanie Shae Thomas, 34, was charged with aggravated cruelty to animals, according to AL.com.
"It really is a community health concern," Triplett said. "If you're a passerby and you see a child alone in a hot car, notify 911, and if you notice that they're in distress, do what you need to do to get them out of the car and cool them off as quickly as possible."
Contact staff writer Elizabeth Fite at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.