KentuckyOne Health Blog

August 15, 2019

Keeping your child safe from the heat both on and off the field.

Nothing says fall like a high school football game under Friday night lights. However, with practices for most school sports underway, soaring temperatures remind us we’re still in the dog days of summer. The average high temperature in Louisville remains in the 80s through September, meaning dangerously high heat indices—and the threat of heat exhaustion or heatstroke—remain a concern well into the season.

Taylor Zuberer, MS, LAT, ATC with Frazier Rehab Sports Medicine, is also an athletic trainer at DuPont Manual High School, said it’s important to take heat exhaustion seriously—on or off the field. 

“Once heatstroke begins, you only have about 30 minutes or so before brain damage can set in,” said Zuberer. “It’s important to know the signs and symptoms and to catch it early.”

To keep their students safe Zuberer and her colleagues start by measuring the heat index every 30 minutes during practice using a hydrometer placed in the middle of the playing field or gym. They then refer to the Kentucky Heat Index Chart  provided by the Kentucky High School Athletic Association to determine if it’s safe to hold practice. Heat indices under 95 are generally considered safe, while indices over 99 call for special precautions including practicing without heavy equipment like padding, providing cold towels to players, and requiring 10-minute water breaks every 30 minutes. If the heat index reaches 104, practice will be called off.

“A temperature in the 90s with 50 percent humidity can easily get to a heat index of 104,” said Zuberer. And while most smart phones are equipped with a hydrometer, Zuberer said they can be very inaccurate.

While Zuberer and her colleagues are trained to quickly identify and treat signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke during athletic practice, there are also things parents can do to help keep their children safe at home.

First, know what to look for. Heat exhaustion is usually accompanied by a fever lower than 104 degrees Fahrenheit, excessive thirst, nausea, fainting, muscle aches, cool and clammy skin, weakness and dizziness. If any of these symptoms are present, children should be sheltered from the heat, provided with water, and given cold towels or ice packs to the back of the neck, knees, and groin area. 

Heatstroke may set in if heat exhaustion is not treated, and is marked by many the same symptoms listed above, but also accompanied by hot and dry skin, rapid heart rate, and shortness of breath. “If they stop sweating, call 911 immediately,” advises Zuberer.

Even if a child doesn’t experience heat exhaustion or heatstroke, parents should be on the lookout for signs of dehydration and help their child recover following practice. First, divide a child’s weight in pounds by two to determine the amount of water in ounces they should be consuming daily. Zuberer says parents can also weigh their children before and after practice to measure how much fluid weight needs to be regained. 

Also, Zuberer reminds parents that sweating means the body is losing electrolytes that need to be replenished—PediaLyte, Gatorade, mustard packets, and even pickle juice are all effective ways of restoring the body’s nutrients. 

Most importantly, Zuberer recommends having your child complete a thorough, annual physical (required for most school sports) with a family physician and establishing a good relationship with that doctor. She says those with blood pressure issues or heart murmurs may be especially susceptible to heat exhaustion, and that some medications, like those often used to treat ADHD, can exacerbate signs of heat exhaustion. 

“It’s crucial for student athletes and their parents to have a strong relationship with a family physician who knows their medical history well and can help them play safe,” said Zuberer.

To schedule your child’s annual physical, or to find a primary care physician, call 502-589-3027.    

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