Heat Illness and Young Athletes
Young athletes practicing in hot weather are at risk for heat illness, and it can happen outside or inside a hot gym. Watch the following video featuring Kevin Walter, MD, pediatric sports medicine specialist, to learn more about heat illness:
How hot is too hot?
Knowing the temperature and humidity is important. Watch the heat index, which measures how hot it really feels when humidity is combined with air temperature. The combination of heat and humidity is dangerous, and it can be too hot to practice or play. When the National Weather Service places the heat index in "extreme caution" or "dangerous" levels, practices should be shorter and less intense, and coaches even may consider canceling them. If the heat index is at an "extremely dangerous" level, practices and games should be canceled.
The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association recommends checking the temperature and humidity 30 minutes before an activity begins and additional checks throughout the activity. For example, a temperature of 95 degrees Fahrenheit with a humidity reading of 35 percent is more likely to cause heat illness.
The National Federation of State High School Associations Sports Medicine Advisory Committee has developed guidelines to reduce the risk of heat illness injuries and deaths in athletics. In addition, they offer coaches a free online course about heat illness prevention.
Types of heat illness
The most common kinds of heat illness are heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Watch for signs and symptoms like:
- Feeling tired or weak.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Muscle cramps.
All symptoms of heat exhaustion, plus:
- Poor coordination and confusion.
- Sweat-soaked pale skin.
- Loss of consciousness.
Kids who have had heat illness before, or are overweight, have a higher risk for heat illness.
Kids, coaches and parents should know and follow these tips to avoid heat illness. When it's hot and humid:
- Slow down and avoid energetic, outdoor activities.
- Teams and schools should have a plan to help athletes slowly get used to practicing in hot weather. Kids are most at risk for heat illness during the first days of practice.
- Practice in an indoor, air-conditioned building, or in the early morning or evening if possible.
- Wear lightweight, light-colored clothing.
- Regularly drink plenty of water. Never limit the amount kids may drink during games or practice.
- Eat small, more frequent meals, and choose foods high in carbohydrates.
- Athletes never should practice or play if they're sick, especially with a fever, vomiting or diarrhea.
- If an athlete has a medical condition, like asthma, sickle-cell trait or sickle-cell disease, or is taking medication, tell the coach. Coaches should know each athlete's physical condition because it can increase the risk for heat illness.
Make sure the team has an emergency plan, and coaches and athletes know basic, first-aid practices.
Treating heat illness
Athletes with signs of heat exhaustion should be removed from play immediately. Get them into the shade and an ice bath. If you only have ice bags, place them on the athlete's neck, wrists and ankles, and in his or her armpits and groin area. Loosen tight clothing, let the athlete rest, and encourage him or her to drink water. This may help prevent heat stroke. Watch the athlete carefully, and if symptoms get worse, call 911.
Heat stroke is a life-threatening, medical emergency. Immediately remove the athlete from play, begin cooling him or her, and call 911. An ice bath is the best method to cool an athlete with heat illness. (This can be made using a child's plastic wading pool filled with ice water.)
Heat stroke is the top cause of preventable death in high school athletics. If you think a young athlete has heat illness, quickly get medical assistance or call 911. Children's Hospital's Emergency Department is staffed by emergency medicine specialists and nurses with extensive pediatric emergency training. We treat kids of all ages for many types of illnesses and injuries.