Carolinas HealthCare System
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What to Know About Young Athletes and Heat Stroke

As school sports start kicking back into gear, heat stroke and heat illness once again become serious risks for athletes of all ages.

Every year, there are a few tragic cases of athletes dying from heat-related illness despite the fact it is 100 percent preventable.

What is heat stroke?

During exercise, when we’re generating extra heat, controlling our core temperature is a continuous challenge for the body. While our bodies have several ways of maintaining a safe temperature (like sweating), it becomes much more difficult in a hot environment. When the body is unable to cool itself and begins to overheat, heat stroke becomes a likely outcome. When your body temperature reaches 104°F, you are suffering a heat stroke.

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What are the symptoms?

  • High body temperature
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Flushed or red, dry skin
  • Rapid, shallow breathing
  • Headache or dizziness
  • Seizures
  • Loss of conscious
  • Muscle weakness/cramps

Helping athletes avoid heat stroke

Grady Hardeman, M.Ed., LAT.ATC, CSSC, a coordinator of athletic training within Carolinas HealthCare System, says athletes with a history of heat illness as well as those with a genetic disorder such as the sickle cell trait are at a higher risk to develop heat stroke. Athletes who are overweight or in poor health are also at higher risk.

Athletes can protect themselves against heat stroke by gradually increasing their exposure to a hot environment, taking frequent water breaks and limiting the amount of heavy protective equipment they’re wearing. Finally, Hardeman says another strategy to keep athletes safe is to monitor the athlete’s body weight before and after activity. Hardeman says if an athlete loses 3 percent or more of his or her body weight during activity, bench the player until that weight has been gained back through fluid intake.

Preemptive measures

One of the easiest ways to lower your risk of heat stroke is to drink plenty of fluids prior to activity. Just because you’re not thirsty doesn’t mean you don’t need fluid, says Hardeman. “Thirst is one of the earliest signs (of dehydration),” he says. “As little as a 2 to 3 percent loss of fluid can increase your risk of heat illness.”

Reacting to heat stroke:

It’s imperative to have a good emergency plan to deal with heat illness, including calling 911 when you suspect someone is suffering a heat stroke. There are other actions you can take immediately to aid a heat stroke victim.

  • Move the person to a cool area
  • Remove any unnecessary clothing
  • Try to cool the person’s body temperature by fanning air while wetting his or her skin
  • Apply ice packs to the armpits, groin, neck, and back or immerse him or her in a cool tub of water or an ice bath