* Content updated August 4, 2021

Now practices and games are in full swing – for football players, cheerleaders, and marching band members alike. Unfortunately, these nice breezy summer days mean young athletes may not have had a chance to acclimate to the heat – an important part of preventing heat illness.

Parents, coaches, and their own teammates need to be on the lookout for the signs of heat illness.

A few years ago, during a particularly brutal summer, several high school football players ended up in our Pediatric Intensive Care Unit because of heat illness. Catching these kids and getting them treatment early can save their lives.

What does heat illness look like?
Kids may have some combination of the following symptoms:

  • Noticeable, increased thirst
  • Muscle cramps
  • Weakness
  • Decreased performance
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue light-headedness or dizziness and difficulty paying attention.

What can I do to prevent heat illness?

Jonathan Elrod, a member of the Sports Medicine team at Arkansas Children's, said the first step is truly acclimatization.

"We want the kids to carefully begin spending progressively longer times exercising outdoors as they prepare for summer practices," Elrod said. "This is very important for their health."

A few basic good health principles can also help:

  • Getting a good night's rest
  • Eating a well-balanced diet of fruits and vegetables.
  • Drinking plenty of water and sports drinks.

Elrod says athletes should avoid anything loaded with sugar or caffeine and says absolutely no energy drinks should be consumed.

What should my athlete drink?

We all know that hydration is key to preventing heat illness, but in kids and teens, compliance is essential. That means they should drink whatever healthy liquids they will drink. Water is better for overall hydration, but it's not helpful if kids won't drink it. Parents can use flavored sports drinks, like Gatorade, if needed. 

What else do I need to know?

Elrod also reminds us that what athletes wear when they practice is also important to consider. Go with as few layers as possible of lightweight, moisture-wicking materials. It may also be helpful to change into dry clothes often.

Cooling bandanas or towels are only helpful if they stay exposed to the wind. If they become wet beneath shoulder pads and helmets, they're only going to trap heat in and make the situation worse. These items may be a good idea after heat exposure, but Elrod advises against them during practice.

Sports Medicine at Arkansas Children's

Arkansas Children’s offers a one-stop approach for all sports injury needs including orthopedic surgeons, sport medicine physicians, athletic trainers, physical therapists and rehab medicine.

For more information: 

ACH: 501-364-4263 (501-364-GAME)

ACNW: 479-725-6995