Children who participate in sports or are physically active in hot weather can be at risk for heat-related illnesses. Each year in the United States, there are a number of tragic stories about young athletes who become seriously ill after playing or practicing in the heat. The good news is that heat illness can be prevented and successfully treated.
There are four major things to look for:
• Heat exhaustion; and
• Heat stroke.
These problems can occur when athletes work hard in extreme heat and humidity, but the risks can be even greater in children.
That’s because children tend to sweat less than adults, making it harder for their bodies to cool off so parents and coaches need to make sure kids take things slowly and gradually get used to playing and practicing in the heat and humidity.
Coaches need to be aware of temperature and humidity levels and change practice length intensity and equipment as the temperature rises. They also need to make it easy for children to get a drink during practice, with more frequent drink breaks as the temperature and humidity levels rise. Coaches in Harlan County have always been careful with their teams. Parents may help out their athlete’s coaches by making sure that their children come to games and practices with a water bottle or a bottled sports drink.
Some children also can be more vulnerable to heat problems if they have a low fitness level. A cold or the flu also increases risk. Others who must be watched closely are those children who have had problems with heat in the past.
The best case would be to have someone from the medical profession at practice just as at games, especially when it is very hot and humid, but obviously that is not always possible, so parents and coaches need to be aware of the danger signals.
In spite of the fact that children sweat less than adults, young athletes can become dehydrated in heat and humidity, and even a small amount of dehydration can make a child feel bad and play less effectively. If a child doesn’t seem to be able to run as fast or play as well as he or she usually does, that could be a warning sign of dehydration. Fluid breaks should be scheduled for all practices and become more frequent as the heat and humidity levels rise. Other symptoms include dizziness, cramps and headache. Children who exhibit these symptoms need to be moved to a shady or air-conditioned area and given fluids to drink. A child can return to practice or the game when the headache, thirst, or dizziness goes away, but it is important to continue to watch that child closely.
Parents can help prevent dehydration and other more serious heat-related problems with a simple experiment. They can have the child step on a scale before practice or a game, and then weigh the child again afterwards. If the child weighs less after the activity, he or she is not drinking enough fluids while active.
Cramps are considered a mild form of heat illness, and they can be treated easily. Cramps are very intense muscle spasms that can occur when an athlete has lost large amount of fluid and salt from sweating. They are most common in heat, but children can get cramps when they are not hot, for example when they are swimming or playing hockey. Children who get cramps should be given a sports drink to help replace fluids, potassium and sodium lost through sweating. Light stretching and muscle massage also help. Those children can return to action when spasms subside, and when they feel ready to participate. Good eating and drinking habits, increased fitness, and becoming acclimated to the heat and activity will help prevent cramps.
Heat exhaustion is a more serious illness that can occur when a child remains physically active even after he or she begins to suffer from ill effects due to heat, such as dehydration. As a child’s body struggles to meet the demands of competition in the face of dehydration, heat exhaustion can result.
The symptoms are easy to spot. The child will find it difficult or impossible to keep playing. He or she may lose coordination, become dizzy or faint. Stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea are also symptoms. Treatment for children suffering heat exhaustion includes getting a child into shade or air-conditioning, removing extra clothing or equipment and cooling the child with water, fans or damp towels. It also helps to have a child with heat exhaustion lie down with legs raised above heart level and to have the child drink chilled water or a sports drink, unless there are problems with nausea or vomiting. The child’s condition should improve rapidly, but if it doesn’t, it is important to get medical treatment as soon as possible. Parents and coaches should rule out any other conditions or illnesses that may predispose a child to continued problems with heat exhaustion and treat those problems before the child returns to full participation in the heat.
Heat stroke is a severe heat illness that occurs when the body creates more heat than it can release. It causes a rapid increase in body temperature that can lead to permanent disability or illness. The symptoms of heat stroke are more severe and include a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit and central nervous system problems such as loss of consciousness, seizures, confusion and irrational behavior. Other signs may include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea, headache, increased heart rate and decreased blood pressure. It is critical to locate any medical personnel who are on-site and get the child to the emergency room as soon as possible. A child who has suffered heart stroke should not return to competition until a physician approves. Fortunately, heat stroke is very rare, but it does happen, even in children. It is important that parents help their children’s coaches to be on the lookout for problems, and make sure their players get plenty of fluids and the chance to cool off regularly.
For more information, contact the Harlan County Cooperative Extension Service at 606-573-4464.
Raymond Cox is the Harlan County extension agent for 4-H/youth development. Educational programs of the Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service serve all people regardless of race, color, age, sex, religion, disability or national origin.