Proactive Protocols: Protecting athletes from heat-related illnesses
By Greg Bach
As summer sports ramp up across the country it’s vital that coaches are on the lookout for any signs that their young athletes may be experiencing heat-related illnesses like heat cramps and heat exhaustion – as well as life-threatening heat stroke – that can strike any child in any sport.
“What we want to look out for is that athlete who looks like they’re struggling and are having a hard time keeping up with the group,” says MedStar Health’s Dr. Korin Hudson, one of the official team physicians for the NHL’s Washington Capitals and the NBA’s Washington Wizards. “They may look flushed in the face or drenched in sweat. The key point is they start looking confused; they get that dazed look in their eye; and they’re not responding as quickly. And that’s when we know we’re in a true emergency and those kids need to be treated right away.”
There are several types of heat-related illnesses that can pose health risks to young athletes, and while these range from mild to severe, each must be taken seriously.
PROACTIVE SAFETY TIPS
Keep the following proactive tips in mind, courtesy of Dr. Hudson, to help keep your young athletes safe this summer:
Watch the weather: Whenever possible avoid conducting practices during the heat of the day (10 am to 3 pm) and schedule sessions for early mornings or evenings.
Adjust practice plans: If your practice must be held during one of the hottest parts of the day, be sure to make the necessary adjustments to protect athletes. “Think about what portions of that practice can be static instruction,” Dr. Hudson says. “Run walk-through drills and work on basic skills that don’t involve running and really building up that body temperature.”
Honing in on hydration: Make sure athletes are drinking plenty of water before, during and after their activities. And never withhold water as a form of punishment.
Sun exposure: More than just heat and humidity, the radiant effect of sun and heat absorbed into surfaces like blacktop and artificial turf can contribute to heat illness.
Practice gear: Have athletes wear loose, light fitting, moisture wicking fabric to help stay cool.
Have lots of ice water available: Dr. Hudson recommends bringing a couple coolers of ice water – one for drinking and one to have on hand in case of emergency. “We know that ice water immersion is the fastest and best way to lower core temperatures,” she says. (While most youth coaches won’t have access to an ice tank, a plastic kiddie pool can be used in an emergency situation after calling 9-1-1. As part of an emergency action plan a parent can be in charge of bringing the pool to practices.)
Dealing with an emergency: If a child suffers heat stroke, every second is crucial. While calling 9-1-1 move the child into air conditioning if available, or shade, and immediately begin cooling the child off. Remove any equipment being worn and if ice water immersion isn’t an option, apply ice packs or cool wet towels to the back of the neck, the armpits and the groin.
A message that matters: “When we’re getting out there, there’s a lot of temptation as parent-coaches – and I’ve been one – to want to do it all,” Dr. Hudson says. “We want to do all this instruction and all these drills, and we feel that more is better. I think it’s important to take a step back and remember that these are kids and we’re not going to risk their safety. Let them do some things to cool off as part of practice. Keep it fun and keep it safe for them.”
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