As student athletes return to football fields, soccer pitches and race courses for fall sports matches and training, it’s important to remain mindful of heat safety. The early fall can still bring high temperatures, and coaches and athletes alike should know the symptoms of heat-related illness.
“If you’re exerting yourself outdoors in the sunlight, that increases the risk of heat exhaustion, even at lower temperatures,” says Dr. Long Nguyen, a family medicine physician with ThedaCare Physicians-Wautoma.
The best way to stay safe in hot, humid weather is to limit how much time you spend in direct sunlight, Dr. Nguyen says. Wear a hat and sunscreen to protect yourself, and stay hydrated. If you’re exercising in the heat, drink extra fluids, as you will be sweating out more water than usual, he adds. And make sure to take frequent breaks.
“Breaks are important, and when you are taking breaks, make sure you’re under the shade or have a fan blowing on you — anything to keep the body as cool as possible during those times when you don’t have to be out in the sun,” Dr. Nguyen says.
Whether you’re exercising or laboring outdoors, it’s also vital to acclimate to exerting yourself in the heat, as people who are not used to hot weather are more susceptible to heat-related illness.
Know the Signs of Heat-Related Illness
Anyone can develop a heat-related illness. It can begin with heat exhaustion, which leads you to feel overheated and tired. You may lose your appetite and energy and feel like you want to sleep, Dr. Nguyen says. Symptoms can develop suddenly or over time.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion include:
- Cool, moist skin with goose bumps when in the heat
- Heavy sweating
- Weak, rapid pulse
- Low blood pressure upon standing
- Muscle cramps
If you’re experiencing heat exhaustion symptoms, you should rest and stop all activity, get to a cooler place, and drink cool water or sports drinks.
Heat exhaustion can progress to heatstroke, which is an emergency.
“Heat exhaustion is the early onset, and it can lead into heatstroke,” Dr. Nguyen says. “Once it starts turning into heatstroke, then we’re more worried. This is when your internal temperature becomes very high and it’s hard to cool down.”
Symptoms of heatstroke include:
- High body temperature of 104 F or greater
- Altered mental state or behavior, which can include confusion, agitation, slurred speech, irritability, delirium, seizures and coma
- Alteration in sweating — skin may feel hot and dry to the touch or slightly moist if heatstroke was brought on by strenuous exercise
- Nausea and vomiting
- Flushed skin
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Racing heart rate
- Throbbing headache
“If you suspect the person is mentally altered, take them to the emergency room to be evaluated or call 911,” Dr. Nguyen says. “While you’re waiting for an ambulance, try to cool down the body as quickly as possible.”
That can include getting the person indoors and removing excess clothing. Help cool the person’s body by having them get into a cool tub of water or shower, using a fan while misting with cool water, or placing ice packs or cold, wet towels on the person’s head, neck, armpits and groin.
Knowing the warning signs and acting when needed are key.
“With the proper precautions in place, athletes can play and practice in higher temperatures and have a safe and fun season,” Dr. Nguyen says.