Protecting Your Child From Dehydration and Heat Related Illness
With the hot, humid days of summer come summer sports and sport camps. It is important to recognize that children are at a higher risk of dehydration and heat-related illness. This is because a child’s body surface area is much greater proportion of his overall weight than an adult. Children also sweat less than adults, thus making it harder for them to cool off. It is imperative that parents and coaches take precautions to protect our kids from dehydration and heat related illness.
What are the signs of dehydration?
Early signs include fatigue, thirst, dry lips/tongue, decreased energy, irritability, headache, diminished athletic performance. Studies show that the sensation of thirst does not occur until a child has lost approximately 2% of their body weight as sweat, so if a child waits to hydrate until they feel thirsty, they are already dehydrated.
Untreated dehydration can lead to more serious complications:
- Heat Cramps: These are extremely painful and intense cramping of the muscles in the arms, legs or abdomen, which usually develop after prolonged exercise associated with excessive sweating. While they commonly occur during exercise in the heat, they can occur in other settings (hockey, swimming). Prevention of heat cramps includes proper conditioning, getting the child acclimated to the heat and humidity (gradually exposing them to exercise in the outdoors to build their fitness and tolerance of the heat), and most importantly, being certain that a child is hydrating properly prior to and during exercise. Treatment of this problem includes offering a sports drink to aide in replacement of fluids and sodium losses. Light stretching, relaxation and massage of the cramped muscles often provides relief. Children can return to play once the cramping resolves and hydration is improved.
- Heat Exhaustion: This can occur if a child continues physical exertion despite suffering from dehydration. Some symptoms include loss of coordination, dizziness, fainting, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach cramping, profuse sweating and pale skin. Once recognized, it requires immediate care, including moving the child to an air-conditioned area or shade, removal of any extra equipment or clothing, having the child lie down with legs raised, manually cooling with fans, cold wet towels, spraying cold water onto the skin, and fluid replacement with cool water or sports drinks. These children should not be permitted to return to play on the same day. Any worsening or persistence of symptoms require seeking care of a medical professional.
- Heat Stroke: This is a severe heat illness occurring when the body creates more heat than it can release, resulting in a rapid increase in the core body temperature (usually above 104 degrees F). Symptoms include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, disorientation or delirium, combativeness, lack of sweating, fast breathing. If left untreated, it can lead to disability or death. Treatment should involve local medical professionals (EMT, trainer). If none available, call 911. Begin cooling the child by removing extra clothing or equipment, applying cool towels, ice packs, fans, etc. until medical personnel arrive and transport child to the nearest medical facility. Return to play should be dictated by a physician.
Parents should make sure that a child has a physical exam prior to playing a sport, particularly if they have a history of heat related illness. Coaches should be made aware of any history of heat illness. Make sure your child is properly hydrated prior to practice/games. And make sure they have adequate amounts of water or sports drink.
Coaches should pay close attention to temperature and humidity levels. Schedule fluid breaks, and remember they need to be more frequent as heat and humidity levels rise. Learn more by reviewing this Hydration and Heat Illness infographic provided by National Athletic Trainers’ Association.