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Keep Your Athletes Hydrated On and Off the Field

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

With summer heat in full swing all across the country and kids heading back to school athletics, band practice, drill team and the like it is a good time to discuss heat related illnesses and their prevention.

It is always at this time of year that I begin worrying about heat exhaustion and heat stroke and I find myself re-emphasizing the importance of maintaining hydration, even before you start back to outside activities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 3,442 deaths between 1999-2003 due to heat and exposure to elevated temperatures, while children under 15 years of age accounted for approximately 7% of the total deaths.

Among high school athletes, exertional heat stroke is the third leading cause of death and is often related to lack of acclimation to the heat and dehydration. You can’t just head out to run three miles in the heat or work out in pads or march in the band on the hot field without preparing ahead of time.

Heat exhaustion occurs when the core body temperature is elevated between 100.4 and 104 degrees. This is different than having a fever secondary to illness. Symptoms are typically non-specific but include muscle cramps, fatigue, thirst, nausea, vomiting and headaches. The skin is usually cool and moist from sweating and is indicative that the body’s cooling mechanism is working. The pulse rate is rapid and weak and breathing is fast and shallow. Coaches, athletes and others should all be aware of these symptoms. This is the body saying, “I am overheated” and don’t keep going! (You would not drive your car when overheated; you pull over, and at least add water.)

The mainstay of treatment is to prevent progression to heat stroke by moving to a cooler place, in the shade, air conditioning etc. Remove as much clothing as possible (uniforms, pads, helmets etc) to help heat dissipation. Water misting fans may be helpful. Begin rehydration with appropriate oral electrolyte solutions and water. When treated quickly and appropriately, symptoms usually resolve in 20 -30 minutes. The child should not return to activities that day, and should avoid heat stress for several days.

Heat stroke is a MEDICAL EMERGENCY and will require transportation to the ER for aggressive treatment. In this case the previous symptoms have been missed and the core body temperature rises to 104 degrees or greater. The skin is flushed, hot and dry from lack of sweating. The athlete is confused, or even unconscious. The heart rate is fast and there is hyperventilation. The blood pools away from vital organs and can result in encephalopathy, liver, kidney and multiple organ failure.

While awaiting transportation to the ER the athlete should be moved to a shaded area, clothing removed and ice packs may be applied to surface areas overlying major vessels, (i.e. the neck, beneath the arm pits, and the groin). Cooling and misting fans may also be used.

Continue to educate your children about the need for hydrating the evening prior to events, and for continuous hydration while exercising in the heat. They should know to drink fluids even when not thirsty, as once you become thirsty you are already behind in your fluid intake. With good education, and recognition of early signs over overheating heat related illnesses are preventable.

That’s your daily dose, we’ll chat again soon!

Send your question to Dr. Sue!

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