Football Players, Heat Stroke and You

Football Players, Heat Stroke and You

Last year, five high school football players died from heat stroke. Shocked? You should be. After all, heat stroke is entirely preventable. Yet this wasn’t the first such incident. According to the Annual Survey of Football Injury Research, 51 football players have died from heat stroke since 1995, 40 of them high schoolers.

The word doesn’t seem to be getting out, or those who play sports and stay active aren’t hearing it. At one high school in Kentucky, six players were hospitalized with heat exhaustion symptoms during a single practice; at another, in Oregon, almost an entire team went to the hospital suffering from rhabdomyolysis, a condition in which heat and dehydration cause muscle tissue to break down. Three of the team needed surgery.

So if young and well-conditioned athletes like high school football players can be so severely affected by the heat, what about mere mortals like us? Well, we're in danger, too. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), heat waves claim more lives per year than hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and earthquakes combined. An average of 350 people die each year from heat-related illnesses.

How do you keep your family safe without hiding indoors in the air conditioning all summer? Follow these five steps.

1. Understand how high temperatures affect the body. Heat-related illnesses happen when the body can't keep itself cool. As the temperature rises, your body tries to cool down by sweating. When you don’t drink enough liquid to support all that sweating, the result is rapid dehydration. Humidity makes things worse: When there's moisture in the air, sweat doesn't evaporate as efficiently.

2. Know your risk factors for heat stroke. Some people are more likely to experience distress in the heat than others. If you’re overweight or have diabetes, you need to be especially careful. Thyroid disease and respiratory infections also make people more susceptible to heat.

3. Be alert for signs of trouble. Here are the progressive signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke:

  • Muscle cramping and weakness
  • Headache
  • Dark urine (which signals dehydration)
  • Low fever
  • Nausea
  • Fast heartbeat and pulse
  • Hot, dry skin (no sweat)
  • High temperature
  • Dizziness
  • Mental confusion or disorientation
  • Loss of consciousness

4. Practice prevention. Don’t exercise outdoors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. unless absolutely necessary. If you have to exercise or do outdoor work in the hot sun, take frequent breaks in the shade. (Bring your own shade if necessary.) Postpone particularly strenuous tasks until evening or early in the morning, and don’t exercise in the heat if you already have a fever. Never remain in a hot car yourself or leave children, pets or older people in a car, even for a few minutes.

5. Take steps to stay cool. When you do exercise or work outside, follow these rules:

  • Drink water frequently, whether or not you're thirsty.
  • Add ice cubes to your water bottle.
  • Check your urine. If it’s dark-colored or there’s not much of it, drink more.
  • Avoid drinks with caffeine or lots of sugar.
  • Don’t drink alcohol, which is dehydrating.
  • Replace lost sodium and minerals by drinking electrolyte-boosting sports drinks or eating salty foods.
  • Wear light-colored, loose-fitting, breathable clothing such as cotton, and avoid synthetic fabrics, which trap the heat.
  • Carry a spray bottle, and spritz yourself with cold water.
  • Don’t jump straight into a strenuous activity; work up to it gradually. (For example, walk, then jog, then run.)
  • If you have to wear heat-trapping protective clothing or equipment, take it off during breaks.
  • Don’t exercise in the heat for more than 90 minutes at a time.
  • Be aware that sunburn can affect your body’s ability to release heat.

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

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