By Caroline Kee - TODAY
Summer is about to arrive, which means it's hotter, the days are longer, and parents are preparing for the change in children's schedules. It is the favorite season of many children, and with good reason: in addition to a much-needed break from school, it offers many opportunities for fun. But beware: according to experts, it also poses risks to your health and safety.
Whether your kids are enjoying the summer at home, going on vacation or camping, it's important to make sure they're having fun safely. To do this, we spoke with pediatric emergency physicians about some of the main reasons why children end up in the emergency room during the summer; about risky activities they would not let their children do; and how parents can ensure the safety of their children this summer.
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Play with fireworks
Asked about this nostalgic summer activity, experts unanimously agreed that fireworks should be left in the hands of professionals and enjoyed from a safe distance. That is, no fireworks at home, not even legal ones.
Every summer, children come to the emergency room with fireworks-related injuries; unsurprisingly, they tend to spike around July 4, said Brent Kaziny, medical director of emergency management at Texas Children's Hospital.
Injuries range from minor to third-degree burns, severe injuries to the face or eyes, and even the loss of fingers or hands. In 2021, there were nine deaths in the United States from fireworks, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission.
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Fortunately, most of these injuries can be prevented by not setting off fireworks at home. If parents still want to take that risk, Kaziny insists that children should never be allowed to touch or light fireworks, including flares.
"Parents should know that flares can reach temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. It's like the heat of a welding torch," said Kaziny, who recommends safer alternatives, such as light sticks, especially for young children.
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"Fireworks can be a really fun part of celebrating summer vacation, but it's not worth it for a child to suffer devastating injuries for life," said Caitlin Farrell, a pediatric emergency physician at Boston Children's Hospital and an injury prevention researcher at Harvard Medical School.
Entering or being near unsupervised pools
Swimming pools are one of the joys of summer, but also one of the biggest dangers for children, according to experts. Drowning is the leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4 in the United States, and most occur in private home pools, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Drownings and submersion injuries often occur quickly and silently, explains Meghan Martin, a pediatric emergency physician at Johns Hopkins All Children's Hospital. That's why he says children should never be left in or near a pool unsupervised. "Avoid walking away, even if it's just for a second, because that's when everything happens," Martin said.
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Always make sure there is a "water watchman" designated to supervise children in the pool, Farrell said, especially when there are young children in the water. Parents should also teach children pool safety as soon as possible, so they know not to get in the water when there are no adults and how to get out.
Ideally, according to Farrell, private pools in homes should have a four-sided fence that automatically closes or closes and is at least four feet tall.
"There is no trick for the safety of children in the water. You have to make sure you give them all the attention and give them swimming lessons," Martin said.
Swimming in a choppy ocean
Relaxing on the beach is one of the favorite summer activities of many families. However, the ocean presents unique risks, and drowning accidents in natural waters (including oceans) are common among children, especially those ages 5 to 14, according to CDC data.
Before going to the beach, always check the weather conditions and the forecast of the wave area. "When you're at the beach, be sure to pay attention to any warnings related to rips or live tides," Kaziny said. If there are flags raised on the beach or lifeguard warnings, always listen to them.
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In any case, if the sea seems too rough or the current too strong, Martin recommends parents keep children away completely, especially if they are small or not good swimmers.
Children play on a beach in Deauville, northwestern France, on August 24, 2022.Lou Benoist/AFP via Getty Images
When children bathe in the sea, they should be accompanied by their parents or closely supervised, Kaziny says. Coast Guard-approved life jackets or floats can offer an extra layer of protection. "The best thing you can do [to protect] younger children is to give them swimming lessons," Kaziny explained.
Another tip from Martin on beach safety is to teach kids to swim out of rip currents, which involves swimming parallel to the beach and never against the current. "Even the strongest swimmers can fall into this trap," he said.
Spending time in the sun unprotected
The sun may be one of the best parts of summer, but it's important for parents to take steps to protect children from excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, experts say.
"Every summer we see very severe sunburn in children, especially infants," Martin said. These include second-degree sunburns that cause blisters and damage the skin.
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According to the CDC, a history of one or more sunburns during childhood increases the risk of developing skin cancer in adulthood. Sun protection is key for both children and adults throughout the summer, according to experts.
"Babies under 6 months should be protected from direct sunlight," said Kaziny, who recalled that parents should bring an umbrella or awning to provide shade when outdoors.
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All children should put on sun protection before sun exposure, Kaziny says. Sunscreen should be broad-spectrum (protects against UVA/UVB rays), he adds, and have at least a protection factor of 15, although ideally higher.
"Make sure you reapply it regularly or at least every two hours and after they get in the water and dry," Kaziny says.
In addition to sunscreen, Kaziny recommends that children wear hats, sunglasses, and protective clothing, such as long-sleeved lycras, whenever possible.
If a child gets sunburned, parents should make sure they drink plenty of fluids and use over-the-counter pain relievers as well as medicated lotions, Kaziny says. Parents should always consult their pediatrician if they have doubts or questions.
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Children are also at risk for sun poisoning, a severe sunburn that can mimic an allergic reaction or a flu-like illness, according to the Cleveland Clinic: In addition to burned skin, it can cause fever, chills, severe rash, nausea, dehydration and dizziness.
Riding a bicycle without a helmet
Bicycle accidents happen year-round, but they increase among kids in the summer, when school ends and people spend more time outdoors, Farrell says. The resulting injuries can range from cuts and bruises to bone fractures and head trauma.
"When kids fall and hit their heads or injure their brains ... they can be devastating injuries (with) lifelong consequences," Farrell says, adding that it's essential that all children wear helmets every time they ride a bike, no matter how close they are to home.
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"Older kids often think they don't need helmets because they're good cyclists and aren't afraid to fall," Farrell says. But emergency room visits prove otherwise.
According to the CDC, teens have one of the highest rates of cycling-related injuries seen in emergency departments.
Regardless of the cyclist's experience, accidents can happen, experts say. "[The helmet] is a simple safety standard that we know saves lives," Farrell said, adding that parents should also wear it consistently so their children learn how to wear it.
A final word on child safety
These aren't the only popular activities that are risky or unsafe for children. NBC News' TODAY.com previously reported that pediatric emergency medicine experts also warn against these activities year-round: driving ATVs, jumping on trampolines unattended, touching unknown pets, riding in the front seat of a car under 13 and entering another home without first asking about firearms.