Students across the country are back in school, hitting both the books and the playing fields. High school athletics represent a favorite pastime for countless students, but in the heat of Florida these activities can pose a health risk. High-school athletes are just as prone to heat-related illnesses as the pros are. That means parents and coaches must be vigilant to prevent dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.
Heat-Related Illness by the Numbers
The CDC recently released a new report about the dangers of heat-related illness for high-school athletes. The study focused on major varsity sports for both genders. The results might surprise you:
- Each year, students lose over 9,000 school days due to heat-related illnesses.
- About 70.7% of those lost days are missed by football players.
- High-school football players miss ten times more days due to heat-related illnesses, than any other single varsity sport in the study.
- The majority of players get sick not during games, but rather during practices. That’s because practice is more likely to occur in the heat of the day, and to last longer than a game.
- Overweight players are significantly more likely to suffer from heat exhaustion or heat stroke.
Clearly football players are the most likely to suffer heat-related illnesses, but they are certainly not the only athletes at risk. Even swimmers can get dehydrated!
Preventing Dehydration and Heat-Related Illness
If coaches, trainers, parents, and students work together, it’s easy to reduce risk for heat-related illnesses. A combination of education and strategy is the best approach to eliminating dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke in high school sports.
- Start the season right. Parents should ask the coach to educate everyone—including athletes—on the signs and symptoms of heat-related illnesses. During that first pre-season meeting, the coach should review how these conditions can be prevented, and review the school’s response plan in the event that a student does get sick.
- Get the right gear. Teenagers know that the right clothes are critical, and that goes for practice gear, too. Whenever possible, athletes should wear light-colored, lightweight cotton t-shirts and mesh shorts for practice. If the game uniform is flexible, these are also the best picks. Playing in a full football uniform is the equivalent of working out in a three-piece suit, so players should skip the uniforms during practice.
- Schedule around the sun. One reason that heat stroke is so much more common during practices, is that practices are generally held immediately after school, in the full heat of the afternoon. Rearranging the practice schedule to include early morning or early evening practices makes a huge difference for players’ health. If that’s not possible, coaches may want to do conditioning or weight training in the gym for the first hour after school. Then outdoor practice can begin in slightly cooler weather.
- Limit the length of practice. Especially at the beginning of the season, kids’ bodies (even big kids’) bodies aren’t acclimated to extreme heat. It takes a week or so for them to adjust. Practices shouldn’t last more than three hours, and should increase in length in small increments.
- Make hydration easy. Built-in water breaks are the best way to make sure that athletes remember to drink water. Coaches should provide plenty of cold, clean water. Sports drinks are better for long practices, since they replenish the body’s electrolytes and other nutrients lost through sweat. Although teens may love soda and energy drinks, these beverages won’t help them rehydrate, and could even make them sick on the field. Athletes should stop to rehydrate at least every 30 to 45 minutes, and more often in high heat or humidity.
- Ensure that everyone’s prepared. Not only coaches and trainers, but also parents and athletes should help monitor for signs of dehydration and heat-related illnesses. Coaches should go over emergency procedures with everyone, and always keep emergency supplies (such as towels, fresh water, and ice) close at hand.
With the right preparation, this year’s sports seasons can be safe for every athlete. If you have questions about preventing sports injuries or other health concerns, please contact us at Regional Medical Center Bayonet Point. Visit us online or call Consult-a-Nurse® at 727-869-5498 for answers to your questions and free physician referrals.