Guide to the Dangers of Heat Illness for Coaches

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Many people have experienced a heat-related illness at some point in their lives, especially as children. For the majority of people, it may have been dehydration or heat cramps that felt terrible and ruined their outside activity for a day. Others may have had the misfortune of experiencing heat exhaustion or heat stroke, ending in hospitalization and longer recovery. Major or minor, the thesis is heat illnesses are damaging to the body, may happen suddenly, and can be experienced by anyone; even the fittest athletes.

Baseball coach standing on the field in the summer

Recognition, prevention, and treatment of heat illnesses are important components of a healthy lifestyle and coaching. Heat is a dangerous factor for coaches and athletes alike during practice and gameplay, but coaches need to protect the players as well as themselves. Fortunately, there are simple signs and preventative steps to avoid the dangers of heat illness.

Heat-Related Illnesses

Although heat-related illnesses are similar, there are a variety with differing causes and consequences. Coaches need to be alert and careful when treatment is needed as underestimating the illness type can lead to dire consequences and in rare cases, death. According to the EPA, more than 9,000 Americans have suffered heat-related deaths since 1979.

Acumen and preparedness are the best preventative measures to take when handling heat related illnesses. Some are less dangerous than others, but all of them should be taken seriously and treated quickly.

  • Dehydration: The most common of heat-related illnesses, dehydration occurs when an individual is overexposed to the sun without proper hydration. The body begins to lose water content, electrolytes, and essential body salts such as sodium, potassium, calcium bicarbonate, and phosphates. Dehydration is almost always associated with heat, but it can happen whenever a person’s body fluids are askew due to sickness or other factors.
  • Exercise-Associated Muscle Cramps: Another common heat illness, muscle cramps are the sudden or progressive, involuntary, painful contractions of muscles during or after exercise. They are also referred to as “heat cramps”, although cramps may occur without heat as a direct catalyst.
  • Heat Syncope: Also known as “orthostatic dizziness”, heat syncope usually occurs in people who are unfit or unused to the heat. It is characterized by experiencing brief episodes of fainting, dizziness, tunnel vision, pale and sweaty skin, or decreased pulse rate after standing for long hours in the heat.
  • Heat Exhaustion: On the more serious side of the spectrum, heat exhaustion is the inability to effectively exercise in the heat due to cardiovascular insufficiency, hypotension, energy depletion, and central fatigue.
  • Heat Stroke: The most severe of heat illnesses, heat stroke is characterized by neuropsychiatric impairment and a high core body temperature, near 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Heat stroke occurs when the thermoregulatory system fails due to overwhelming heat production. It is the most severe illness because it may lead to multi-organ system failure if not immediately rectified.

Prevention and Hydration Importance

Athletes need to stay hydrated consistently and frequently to avoid any heat illness. The best prevention method is to keep the body properly hydrated before, during, and after any activity related to heat. Water assists with circulation, moving heat away from internal organs and allowing the body to sustain a safe body temperature. Even losing 1% of a body’s water mass (55-60% of body made up of water) is considered dehydration, with 2% depletion causing heat stress or possible heat stroke. The 8×8 rule, 8 8-ounce glasses per day, has been a general rule for years, but is not quite accurate. It depends on the level of activity, metabolism, heat, and other factors.

Coaches need to consider all factors when it comes to preventing heat illness. Proper training schedules and outfits can greatly affect the risk of heat illness. Practicing during the cooler hours of the day and wearing breathable, light-colored uniforms will prevent them from succumbing to heat illness as well as become familiar with the heat and activity. Gradually intensifying practice over the course of 7-14 days is the optimum case for avoiding heat illness.

Symptoms of Heat Illness

The first sign of heat illness is also a symptom. Dehydration is the gateway into other, more serious illnesses. After dehydration, other symptoms are added or amplified. As a person continues to overexert, more symptoms become apparent and aggressive.

  • Dehydration: Symptoms of dehydration include chills, dark urine, dizziness, dry mouth, headaches, thirst, and general weakness. Not all of them have to occur, as individual people react differently to dehydration; from feeling intense chills to having both dizziness and dry mouth.
  • Muscle Cramps: These can begin suddenly or progressively, skeletal muscle cramping involuntarily and painfully. They can be described as tics, twinges, or tremors felt anywhere in the body during or after strenuous activity.
  • Heat Syncope: Associated with tunnel vision and dizziness due to standing in the heat for long periods of time, syncope does not require activity to occur. Other symptoms involve fainting, pale and sweaty skin, and or a decreased pulse rate.
  • Heat Exhaustion: Serious, but can be rectified through hydration (possibly intravenously), cooling, and leg elevation. Heat exhaustion can be recognized by excessive fatigue, fainting, vomiting, and cognitive changes such as headaches or confusion.
  • Heat Stroke: Dehydration or cramps may be overlooked or ignored without permanent damage, but heat exhaustion can cause death if left unchecked. When the thermoregulatory system is compromised, immediate action must be taken. The central nervous system will stop functioning properly and cause fainting, aggressiveness, confusion, seizures, and lead to multi-organ system failure.

Heat Illness Treatments

Tending to heat illness can be quick and easy, or vital and involved. All types should be taken seriously, and staying hydrated is the best way to prevent and treat any heat illness. Drinking fluids such as water or sports drinks, drinks balanced with electrolytes and salt, keep the body maintained and at an even, safe temperature.

  • Dehydration: Mild dehydration can be treated with simple rehydration. Drink fluids like water or sports drinks to replenish lost electrolytes and salt. Moderate dehydration will need more fluids and a shaded area where the body can keep cool while it reestablishes balance.
  • Muscle Cramps: Cramps can be identified early enough for preventative treatment through stretching the affected area. If they are not identified and continue to increase in pain and length, longer rest and passive static stretching will be needed to properly treat them. More involved solutions may be required such as massaging the affected muscle or muscles and icing them to reduce swelling. If the cramps are not handled in early stages, they can prevent people from performing activities safely and with a higher chance of harm.
  • Heat Syncope: Standing in the sun for a prolonged amount of time will increase the body’s internal temperature and even cause syncope. The best treatment is to move the person demonstrating the symptoms to a cool area and elevate their legs above their heart, increasing blood flow. Cooling pads and ice packs can help cool the skin quickly and, as always, rehydrate.
  • Heat Exhaustion: If exhaustion becomes apparent, exercise needs to be stopped immediately. The person needs to be removed from the hot environment and into a cool area. Leg elevation, ice packs, and intravenous fluids will help alleviate the symptoms before they can become more serious.
  • Heat Stroke: As the most serious of heat illnesses, it cannot be taken lightly and the treatment is heavily involved. Immediate whole-body cold-water immersion is necessary to rapidly reduce the core body temperature. If the body temperature maintains unsafe levels, brain damage and organ failure are certain consequences. Once the core body temperature reaches 102 degrees Fahrenheit, they can be removed from the ice bath before overcooling occurs. Treatment also includes intravenous fluids, rest, stretching, and a slow return to outside activities.

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The Ohio University online Master’s in Athletic Administration program specializes in developing interscholastic Athletic Directors, building on the students’ passion for serving young student-athletes and running a highly-successful athletic department. Ohio University is the pioneer in sports education. By establishing the first academic program in the field of sports administration, this online program is recognized today as the premier professional training program for candidates seeking careers in the sports industry.