Just cool it: Why heat illness is dangerous for young athletes

August in Wisconsin means high heat and humidity. As the temperature climbs, I worry about young athletes heading back to the practice field. Every year I hear about kids dying from heat illness, and it’s so easy to prevent. Kids practicing in hot weather, outdoors or inside (heat illness can happen in a hot gym too), are at risk.

Watch for the signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke — two common types of heat illness.

Heat exhaustion signs and symptoms include:

  • Feeling tired or weak.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Headache.
  • Muscle cramps.
  • Dizziness.

Heat stroke symptoms include everything from heat exhaustion, plus:

  • Poor coordination and confusion.
  • Sweat-soaked, pale skin.
  • Seizures.
  • Disorientation.
  • Loss of consciousness.

Knowing the signs of heat illness and having an emergency action plan in place can prevent serious problems and save lives.

Prevention

Keep an eye on the weather, including the temperature and heat index. The combination of heat and humidity really is dangerous, and sometimes it’s just too hot to practice or play. If your son or daughter has a medical condition, like asthma or sickle-cell trait, tell the coach. Coaches should know each athlete’s physical condition because it can increase the risk for heat illness.

Be sure your kids are training properly. Safety tips include:

  • 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. Coaches never should limit the amount kids may drink during games or practice.

Learn more about preventing heat illness by visiting our website. I also encourage you to watch the following video for more information:

Treatment

An athlete with signs of heat exhaustion should be removed from play and cooled immediately. Get him or her 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 too. Loosen tight clothing and let the athlete rest. He or she can have water but must be watched carefully. If symptoms get worse or the athlete becomes confused, disoriented or loses consciousness, call 911.

Heat stroke is a life-threatening, medical emergency. I can’t stress this enough. Remove the athlete from play immediately, cool him or her as quickly as possible, and call 911.

If you think a young athlete has heat illness, quickly get medical assistance or call 911. Remember, heat stroke is the top cause of preventable death in high school athletics.

Kevin Walter, MD- Kevin Walter, MD, pediatric sports medicine specialist, Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin

Dr. Walter is the program director of Pediatric and Adolescent Sports Medicine at Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin and assistant professor of Orthopedics at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

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