by Dana Brewington, MD, Sports Medicine physician

Even the best trained athlete can develop heat illness when it’s hot and humid. Exercise-related heat illness happens when exercise is done in high temperature and high humidity. It’s one type of injury, unlike sports injuries caused by contact, that can almost always be prevented with proper attention to safety and common sense.

Our body’s constant temperature is around 98.6°F and when we exercise our body heat rises. Sweating is our body’s response to get rid of excess heat. As the heat and humidity rise, sweating can actually become less effective at cooling the body. Body temperature can rise to dangerous levels if the body is unable to dissipate the excess heat, resulting in heat illness.

Recognition and Treatment

A common factor that can lead to heat related illness in young athletes is dehydration. Heat illness can progress to heat exhaustion, heat cramps, and heat stroke. Young athletes can develop faintness, extreme tiredness, headache, fever, and intense thirst. Other signs include nausea, vomiting, hyperventilation, and skin numbness or tingling.

  • Heat cramps: painful muscle contractions
  • Heat exhaustion: body temperature up to 104°F, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, fainting and flushed or moist skin
  • Heat stroke: body temperature greater than 104°F, confusion, combativeness, seizures and/or stroke, shock and unresponsiveness.

When you see any signs of heat illness or heat stroke, you may be dealing with a life-threatening emergency. Your child’s coach should seek immediate medical assistance and work on cooling the young athlete. Treatment tips include:

  • Getting the athlete to a shaded area.
  • Cooling the athlete rapidly using cold water. You may use spray from a hose, cold water sponging, placing cold towels over the entire body or immerse then in a tub of cold water if available.
  • Monitoring body temperature.
  • Providing cool beverages.
  • Getting medical assistance as soon as possible.

Prevention

The best defense is prevention. Prevention means that your child’s athletic organization has an Emergency Action Plan to prevent heat illness. That plan should include:

  • Adapting athletes to heat gradually over 10-14 days.
  • Establishing hydration policies.
  • Establishing hot, humid weather guidelines.
  • Ensuring appropriate body cooling methods are available.
  • Monitoring the athletes closely.

Return-to-play

In order to safely return an athlete to full participation following a heat related illness, a return to play strategy should be implemented. Work with your sports medicine physician or primary care physician to develop a plan.  The length of recovery time is primarily dictated by the severity of the incident.

As an added resource, the staff at Overland Park Regional Medical Center is available to diagnose and treat sports-related injuries for young athletes. To make an appointment, call (913) 541-3365. For more information about the Sports Medicine Program at Overland Park Regional Medical Center, visit oprmc.com/sportsmedicine.

Dana C. Brewington, MD, is a board-certified family medicine physician with additional board certification and fellowship training in sports medicine. Dr. Brewington delivers comprehensive family medicine, with specialized clinical interests in sports medicine and women's health. She has authored presentations, articles, and research papers in the field of sports medicine. She has served sports organizations at the high school, collegiate, and municipal levels, giving her a breadth of experience with athletes of all ages and skill levels.

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