Heat-Related Illnesses: Protecting Athletes

Developing a heat-related illness is one of the biggest hazards for fall athletes, especially those who train in extreme heat. Heat illness, a spectrum of disorders due to environmental exposure to heat, results from a combination of high temperature and humidity. Understanding the signs of the most common (and severe) heat-related syndromes can help parents and coaches act quickly and treat athletes.
Heat edema
Heat edema, or swelling related to high temperatures, is a mild form of heat-related illness. Heat causes blood vessels to expand, pushing fluid into the hands, legs or ankles due to gravity. Proper rest and elevation can quickly alleviate these symptoms.
Heat cramps
Severe muscle cramps or spasms during or after exercise in a hot environment are known as heat cramps. Heat cramps are painful, brief spasms that occur from excessive sweating (salt loss) or muscle fatigue. The best forms of treatment for heat cramps include rest, hydration, ice and consuming salty foods or electrolyte supplements.
Heat syncope
Fainting, dizziness or lightheadedness resulting from physical exertion in extreme heat falls under the umbrella of heat syncope. Intense heat combined with dehydration can lead to a fainting episode. It’s important to make sure the individual experiencing heat syncope is moved to a shaded spot and drinks plenty of water or a sports drink. Elevating the legs in a position where the feet are above the head can also be beneficial.
Heat exhaustion
Heat exhaustion is a moderately severe condition that, left untreated, can lead to heat stroke. Causes of heat exhaustion include exposure to high temperatures, particularly when combined with high humidity and strenuous physical activity. Its symptoms include heavy sweating, paleness, cold skin, nausea, muscle cramps, extreme tiredness and weakness, dizziness and headache. In most cases, heat exhaustion can be treated by moving the person to a cool spot, applying cold water to the skin and giving the athlete plenty of fluids. If you are with someone showing signs of heat exhaustion, seek immediate medical attention if he or she has symptoms that last longer than one hour.
Heatstroke is a life-threatening medical emergency and requires immediate medical attention. Heat stroke occurs when overexposure to heat overwhelms the body’s internal temperature-regulating mechanisms and the body is unable to cool itself down. The symptoms of heat stroke include an elevated body temperature (above 103°F), hot and dry skin (no sweating), slurred speech, loss of consciousness, and nausea or vomiting. If you think a person is experiencing heatstroke, seek immediate medical attention or call 911. While waiting for medical attention, move the victim to a cool spot and try cooling the body down by applying cold water to the skin. Do not give the person fluids.
Prevention tips
Parents and coaches should encourage athletes to always properly hydrate before, during and after activity (especially in hot weather). Adults should also make sure players are acclimated to extremely hot temperatures before the season begins. Light practices before regular practice and games can prepare an athletes body.
If you believe your child or player is experiencing a heat-related illness, remove him or her from the activity they are playing, get them to a shaded spot and provide plenty of water (unless the signs of heatstroke are present). In a medical emergency like heatstroke, minutes matter. For fast, expert emergency care, choose Hillcrest Hospital Henryetta.