Protecting Youth Athletes from Heat Illnesses

As our nation deals with extreme weather, heat deaths in the U.S. have increased 56% from 2018 to 2021. The high heat and humidity across our country are a danger to all of us, but particularly athletes who are participating in sports outdoors.

High school sports practices are either underway or starting now, and youth are at a high risk of heat illnesses during this brutally hot summer, particularly in the first few weeks of practice. While heat illnesses are a real concern for all athletes, young athletes can be at particular risk because they may not know when they need to take a break.

Why is Heat Illness a Concern for Teens?

When an athlete of any age begins to exercise or train for a sport in hot conditions, the body needs time to adapt. This adaptation process, which is called heat acclimatization, takes approximately two weeks, but the first three days of heat exposure are the most dangerous. During this time, athletes need to gradually increase the durations and intensity of their activity. Coaches need to be aware of this important acclimatization process.

Parents and coaches should also be aware that heat-related illness doesn’t only occur on hot days. The risk is about more than the temperature — it’s also about humidity, sun and wind. Humidity hinders sweat evaporation, the body’s primary heat dissipation mechanism. So when humidity is high, no matter the air temperature, there is a heat safety concern. If there’s a lot of sun and no wind, that also increases the risk.

What Symptoms Indicate Heat Illness?

Quick recognition of a heat-related illness is important. They include:

  • Disorientation
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness
  • Unusual behavior
  • Headache
  • Vomiting

There are several conditions that fall within the realm of “heat illnesses,” but these are the primary ones:

  • Heat cramps, also referred to as exercise-associated muscle cramps, are caused either by dehydration and electrolyte losses or tired muscle groups. They’re easy to spot when a muscle group tightens and knots.
  • Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is unable to send enough blood to both the working muscles and the skin for heat dissipation, which results in the person either collapsing or being unable to continue exercising.
  • Heat stroke is a medical emergency in which a person’s body temperature is over 105 degrees (which is usually not recognized by traditional thermometers). If a person has been exercising outside and their personality changes, they start acting weird or different, or they become confused, you should suspect heat stroke.

Note that it is a myth that the person will stop sweating if they are suffering from a heat illness; this rarely happens.

How Can We Keep Athletes Safe in the Heat?

Coaches of athletes should follow heat acclimatization guidance to gradually increase the length of training sessions and the intensity of workouts, such as keeping training under two hours once a day for the first week. Conditioning, such as repetitive running and timed drills, should be held in an air-conditioned area. Coaches should also incorporate breaks into their practice. These breaks should include lots of water, and either take place in air conditioning or in the shade with cooling devices such as fans or cold towels. Coaches should always have access to ice in cases of emergency. They should also talk to their athletes about the importance of hydration, good sleep and good nutrition. Finally, coaches should implement a buddy system. By assigning every athlete a buddy, someone is more likely to notice when an athlete isn’t feeling well or is starting to act out of character and needs to be stopped for evaluation.

Parents must discuss the importance of staying hydrated, which is one of the easiest ways to help prevent heat-related illness. Parents should ensure there is unlimited amounts of water available for athletes during practices and games, and also require their teens to drink plenty of water before and after activity as well.

Final Thoughts…

If a coach, parent, or teammate sees someone struggling, pull them out of the game or practice immediately. 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. Taking a cold shower can also be very helpful.

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