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Heat-Related Illness and Young Athletes: 3 Important Things Parents and Coaches Need to Know

Learn what you can do to help prevent heat-related illness during hot-weather or high-humidity training and play.

Little league players sitting in the dugout

Is your teen hoping to make the cut at this year’s varsity tryouts? Make sure she or he can take the heat — literally. “As the summer gets hotter and kids enter high school, they will start participating in sports tryouts and practices,” says primary care sports medicine expert Dr. Rajwinder Deu, “and unfortunately, some of them do experience heat-related problems.”

Heat-related illnesses — heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke — are a real concern for all athletes, but parents need to be extra conscious of young athletes who may not know when they need to take a break. Parents and coaches need to pay even more attention to those who play sports that require wearing heavy equipment, like football. Studies have shown that the risk of developing a heat-related illness is 11.4 times higher in football than all other sports combined.

“No matter what sport is being played, during practices and games when medical professionals are not present,” says Deu, “it’s extremely important for everybody — especially parents on the sidelines watching their children participate — to have some information regarding heat-related illness.”

In an effort to help parents and coaches prevent heat stroke, heat exhaustion or cramps in their child or player, Dr. Deu provides the following tips:

1. Heat Acclimatization

Slowly getting used to the heat is the biggest prevention method. “The goal is to increase heat tolerance, because that is the biggest problem athletes face,” Deu says. “They get out there too quickly, do too much and are not acclimated to the weather, and subsequently develop problems, like heat exhaustion or heat stroke.”

During the first 10 to 14 days of heat exposure, athletes should gradually increase the duration and intensity of their exercise or activity. This is especially important for children and teens who may be out of shape and/or considered overweight (BMI over 25). The National Athletic Trainers’ Association suggests a 14-day period in its high school-specific guidelines for preseason heat acclimatization.

It’s also important to understand that heat-related illness isn’t confined to hot days. Individuals are also susceptible on days with moderate temperatures and high humidity.

2. Drink Plenty of Water

Staying hydrated is one of the easiest ways to help prevent heat-related illness. Coaches and parents need to make sure unlimited amounts of water are available for athletes during practices and games, but it is also important for them to stress that athletes need to drink water before and after activity as well.

“You want to drink before, during and after activity so you stay hydrated enough to maintain an adequate body temperature,” says Deu. “I always hear from athletes that they don’t want to have to go to the bathroom during practice or a game, so they don’t drink enough water.” But not doing so could have severe consequences and be life-threatening given the right conditions. Learn about the signs of dehydration and heat stroke.

3. Early Recognition and Cooling

Quick recognition of a heat-related illness is paramount to survival because the signs and symptoms are generally nonspecific:

  • Disorientation
  • Dizziness, weakness
  • Unusual behavior
  • Headache
  • Vomiting

“Be proactive,” Deu stresses. “If you see someone struggling, pull them out of the game or practice, ask them how they are feeling, give them some water and cool them down.” Cold compresses or ice should always be kept on hand for circumstances that require immediate cooling.

If your child or a specific athlete is not behaving typically and the conditions are right for heat-related illness, Dr. Deu says you should investigate. “Parents, coaches and trainers know their kids the best and can recognize when something just doesn’t seem right.”

True or False

Individuals with sickle cell trait (SCT) are at increased risk to suffer heat-related illness.

True: All athletes at Division I and II schools are required to be tested for the trait or sign a written release declining the test before competing. Tests for sickle cell trait are currently performed on all newborns in the U.S. Individuals with SCT need to be well-hydrated and follow heat acclimatization guidelines.

Muscle cramps occur because of a lack of potassium.

False: Often times, when experiencing a muscle cramp, people think it’s due to a lack of potassium and try to eat a banana for relief. But if athletes find that they are cramping often during athletic events, it is actually due to a loss of sodium from sweating.

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