This Is What Really Happens to Your Body in a Hot Car

Each year, an average of 37 children die from being trapped in hot cars in the United States. But how does this happen? As it turns out, a lot of damaging things happen to our bodies when we suffer heat stroke from being trapped in a hot car.

Your car’s temperature can increase by more than 40 degrees in less than an hour


A car’s temperature can climb to well over 100 degrees. | Joe Raedle/Getty Images

If you’ve ever gone outside on a hot day, you know that it only takes a few minutes before you begin to sweat. And in a car, that uncomfortable feeling is tenfold. That’s because even if you had the air conditioning on prior to exiting the vehicle, parking your car in the sun can cause temperature increases of more than 40 degrees in just one hour. According to Live Science, the dashboard of a car can hit a whopping 157 degrees if parked in the sun.

Next: This is the first thing that will happen to your body. 

You will begin to sweat profusely

Businessman sweating in his office

Sweating is the first thing to happen. | Minerva Studio/iStock/Getty Images

The first thing that happens to your body is exactly what you’d expect: You’ll begin to sweat. This is your body’s natural mechanism to keep itself cool. Sweating is the process of eliciting moisture in order to allow heat loss through evaporation. When you’re inside a hot car, the increase in temperature causes your body temperature to increase. Your body’s first reaction is to cool itself off — with sweat.

Next: This will begin to set in.

You will begin to feel agitated

nervous stressed young woman

Agitation and confusion come next, especially for small children. |

This is especially true for children who can’t escape their car seats on their own. Agitation and confusion set in, and the child will realize something is amiss. They’ll usually become angry and likely get fussy wondering why they are so uncomfortable. Most people would begin to shed clothing when they realized they were getting too hot. But young children are often strapped in their car seats and can’t remove any clothing, making them more agitated.

Next: Since you’re losing water through sweat, this will happen. 

You’ll start to feel dizzy

Portrait of a woman with a headache on an airplane

Dizziness comes with dehydration. | kosmos111/iStock/Getty Images

The hotter your body becomes, the more you’ll need water to replenish the lost fluid from sweat. But when you’re trapped in a hot car, you can’t get the water you need. You become dehydrated. Dehydration causes a lack of oxygen to the brain, and you feel dizzy. Besides sweating, this is one of the first signs that your body is overheating. And for young kids, it can be taxing to be so uncomfortable.

Next: This is the first sign of heat stroke. 

You’ll stop sweating, and your skin will become hot

child in carseat

Car seats save lives, but they can also lead to death if your child is left in a hot car. | scyther5/Getty Images

Eventually, your body will become so hot that you’ll have heat stroke. By now, you’re beyond sweating and heat exhaustion. Your body actually stops sweating when you’re suffering from heat stroke because your body can no longer regulate its internal temperature. Your skin becomes very dry and hot to the touch, and it may also turn red.

Next: Severe dehydration will set in, and it will lead to this next. 

You’ll become severely dehydrated, leading to electrolyte imbalances

child looking out window

Leaving your child in a hot car, even for a few minutes, is never a good idea. | Sasiistock/Getty Images

At this point, you are severely dehydrated. This causes serious electrolyte imbalances. When you lose water in the body, the concentration of sodium in your blood will rise. An overload of sodium is called hypernatremia and can have scary side effects, such as seizures, coma, and death. All of these eventually can occur to someone trapped in a hot car.

Next: Your body loses its ability to control this. 

The heartbeat will become irregular due to blood pressure issues

Body compression

Heart problems begin to occur. | SerafinoMozzo/Getty Images

Severe dehydration causes problems with blood pressure. When the volume of blood is reduced or the heart begins beating more slowly, blood pressure drops. And since the body is struggling to keep itself afloat, this is a common late symptom of heat stroke. The heartbeat will become irregular, causing an arrhythmia. The heart rate will rapidly increase.

Next: These occur in the later stages of heat stroke. 

You will begin to hallucinate

Young girl addicted to drugs with hallucinations

Hallucinations are an effect of heat stroke. | KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images

Hallucinations are also common at this stage in heat stroke. Dehydration causes oxygen depletion and low blood pressure, which eventually cause brain malfunctions. Hallucinations can be a result. At this point, it is imperative that the person be treated for heat stroke. But when trapped in a hot car, that isn’t possible, which causes even more intense symptoms to appear.

Next: This troubling side effect happens in most cases of heat stroke. 

Seizures may occur

A child with epilepsy during a seizure

Seizures are common in the late stages of heat stroke. | Martinbowra/Getty Images

Another troubling side effect of heat stroke: Seizures. In about 65% of heat stroke cases, seizures occur. There are intense brain malfunctions in the later stages of heat stroke, which brings on the seizures. It’s a result of depression in the central nervous system. At this point, those suffering from heat stroke are approaching death if immediate treatment is not sought.

Next: This happens when your body can no longer keep you alert. 

You may slip into a coma

girl in coma

A coma is a late-stage symptom of heat stroke. | shironosov/Getty Images

When heat stroke hits its greatest point, the body can no longer keep you alert. You can slip into a coma if the heat stroke goes untreated. The brain has lost oxygen because of severe dehydration. At this point, a medical team would need to work quickly to preserve the brain function and keep this person alive. But for those trapped in a hot car, help is not on the way. Those who slip into a coma during heat stroke have little time to be saved without having lasting effects.

Next: By the time you fall into a coma, the body is likely at this temperature. 

Your core temperature can reach more than 108 degrees

sweating woman

Your core temperature can reach 108 degrees. | JadeThaiCatwalk/Getty Images

The core temperature in the body is supposed to be 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything above 100.4 degrees is considered a fever. But with heat stroke, the body can reach a whopping 108 degrees. For young children, anything over 102 degrees should warrant a trip to the emergency room. When the temperature hits 108 degrees, the body begins shutting down.

Next: The heat damages your cells, leading to this — which is deadly. 

The heat eventually severely damages cells, causing organs to rapidly shut down

Doctors rushing with patient

Organ failure occurs. | Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images

When the body temperature hits tremendous highs, the cells get severely damaged. Once the cells are irreparably damaged, the organs can no longer function. This leads to rapid organ failure. By now, death is practically imminent unless immediate help is sought. And for a small child trapped in a car, treatment at this stage would still likely have lasting effects on the brain and body.

Next: Eventually, the organs shut down and cause death. 

The cause of death in a hot car is hyperthermia, or overheating of the body

candle vigil

Sadly, hot car deaths still occur. | izzzy71/Getty Images

The official cause of death from being trapped in a hot car is known as hyperthermia, or overheating. The body is only built to withstand a small internal temperature range. If the internal temperature gets too warm, heat stroke occurs. On the contrary, if the internal temperature drops too low, hypothermia occurs.

Next: Here’s a quick tip to potentially save a life. 

Always park your car in the shade

Mint green car

Don’t park your car in the sun. | ManuelGonzalezOlaecheaFranco/iStock/Getty Images

Humans are not perfect. It is possible to accidentally leave a toddler trapped in a hot car, but hopefully most parents realize within minutes that their child is missing. Form the habit of always parking in the shade. This way, should your memory ever fail you for a few minutes, the car will remain cooler than it would if parked in the sun. (In the shade, the internal temperature of the car reaches about 100 degrees, but it can reach between 120 and 160 if parked in the sun.)

Next: Car companies are making moves to prevent hot car deaths. 

Car companies are working on implementing safety systems to prevent children from harm in hot cars

car engineer

Car companies have been working to develop mechanisms to prevent hot car deaths. | Zapp2Photo/Getty Images

Again, humans aren’t perfect. But if cars had mechanisms that helped people remember their child was in the back seat, the number of annual deaths from being left in a hot car would likely drop. One Texas boy invented a device that would prevent hot car deaths. Right now, there aren’t many ways to do so besides the good old memory. But Toyota was impressed with the invention, and if it were to hit stores, it would likely be snatched up by consumers immediately.

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