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Medical Minute: Helping Young Athletes Beat the Late-Summer Heat

by on August 29, 2012 6:18 AM

As the summer is coming to a close, preparations commence for the new school year: back-to-school shopping, learning new schedules and classes, and preparing for the fresh curriculum that lies ahead.

But for high school and middle school athletes, the end of summer means two-a-days, preseason practices, and finally unearthing the uniforms, pads and cleats that spent the last three months gathering dust.

According to Dr. Matthew Silvis, of the Family and Community Medicine department at Penn State Hershey Medical Center, late summer is the most critical time of the year to take precautions against heat-related illnesses in adolescents.

“These kids have had the summer off, and may or may not have followed their coach’s recommendations for conditioning or may not be acclimated to the heat – so when they go to those first few practices it’s a total shock to their system, whether it’s the hottest part of the day or not,” he said.

In addition to reducing performance, heat can cause illnesses or health complications that can be potentially life-threatening to student-athletes, such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. The least severe of these is a fatigue or cramping in large muscle groups, but students suffering from nausea, vomiting, abdominal discomfort, shortness of breath or chest pain, and overall weakness or fatigue are more likely experiencing heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion is treatable by improving cold air circulation or fanning the athlete, having them rest and drink water and applying ice packs. However, if a student with heat exhaustion goes untreated and they become delirious or reach a core temperature greater than 104 degrees, they’ve progressed to heat stroke and need to seek immediate medical attention.

“Once an athlete starts showing signs of heat stroke, it’s an emergency situation,” said Silvis. “Heat stroke is the leading cause of preventable sudden death in student-athletes. If left untreated, heat stroke leads to multisystem organ failure.”

Silvis says early treatment is critical for preventing damage related to heat stroke. “There’s never been a reported case of death from heat stroke if the athlete’s been treated within 30-60 minutes,” he said. “Even if you make the mistakes leading up to heat stroke, if you can identify and treat it quickly you can reverse it.”

Making sure students are properly hydrated before practice, allowing frequent water breaks in the shade or in air conditioning, avoiding midday practices, wearing appropriate clothing and observing the heat index on practice days are all ways to prevent heat illness.

Additionally, guidelines from the National Federation of High Schools (NFHS) recommend that coaching staff implement a gradual process to allow players to become acclimated to wearing equipment while exercising. Football players may start with just a helmet, then shoulder pads, then work up to full padding over the course of 10 to 14 days.

Ultimately, Silvis maintains that the most important factor in preventing heat illness is awareness.

“We have to educate our kids, coaches and parents about how to recognize the early warning signs and symptoms of heat illness,” he said. “It’s really important because even if everyone is doing the right things, staying hydrated and taking breaks, athletes can still find themselves in trouble.”

The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature brought to you by Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Articles feature the expertise of Penn State Hershey faculty physicians and staff and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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