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Understanding the Risk of Heat Illness

Exertional heat stroke is one of the top three causes of sport related death, however, it can be prevented with proper strategies in place.

Summertime has become a prime season for youth lacrosse. Camps, clinics and club tournaments populate the calendar during these months and keep many players heavily engaged with the sport.

Summer is, of course, also the hottest time of the year, with temperatures and humidity much higher than they are during other seasons. The coupling of lacrosse activity with summer weather can lead to the risk of heat related illness.

Normally, the body cools itself by sweating. Sometimes, however, during extreme heat, sweating is not enough and can lead to body temperatures rising faster than the body can cool itself. Basically, the body’s temperature control system gets overloaded. Even young and healthy people can be affected if they participate in strenuous physical activities during hot weather.

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) lists several illnesses that are heat-related, ranging from minor to severe. These include heat rash, sunburn, and cramps, and continue into heat exhaustion and the most severe illness, heat stroke.

Fortunately, there are some helpful tips that athletes can utilize to minimize these risks. The good news is that heat related illnesses are preventable.

To begin, it’s important for all athletes, coaches and parents to recognize the symptoms of heat-related illnesses.

Skin irritation, small blisters, and painful red and warm skin are signs of the milder issues of heat rash and sunburn. Muscle pain or spasms, heavy sweating, tiredness or weakness, dizziness, and nausea or vomiting could all be signs of more progressive issues such as heat cramp and heat exhaustion. 

Heat stroke is characterized by high body temperatures (103 degrees or higher), hot, red, dry or damp skin, a fast pulse, confusion, and fainting/loss of consciousness. In all cases, individuals with any of the noted symptoms should move to a cool place out of the sun, and stop physical activity. 

Symptoms that include throwing up and fainting require medical help. Heat stroke is a medical emergency and 911 should be called immediately.

While anybody can develop heat-related illness, it should also be noted that certain persons, including young athletes, with pre-disposed conditions such as obesity, heart disease, poor circulation, prescription drug use and alcohol use, may be at higher risk. Heat stroke can develop in as little as 20 to 30 minutes of exercise in extreme conditions.

“Exertional heat stroke is one of the top three causes of sport related death, however, it can be prevented with proper strategies in place,” says Samantha Scarneo, vice president of sport safety for the Korey Stringer Institute. “Exertional heat strokes occur more in July and August compared to any other month, and therefore we need to be the most vigilant during these hot months.”   

So, how can heat related illnesses be prevented? Here are some basic guidelines:

• Schedule outdoor activities carefully. Try to limit activity to morning and evening hours, avoiding the midday when temperatures are the hottest. Lacrosse events that utilize this type of scheduling are preferred. 

• Hydrate adequately, both before and during activity. Drink plenty of cool, non-alcoholic fluids. Don’t wait until you are thirsty to drink.

• Keep cool. As much as possible, utilize light-colored, lightweight and loose-fitting clothing. For example, wear mesh pinnies rather than heavier uniforms. Use sunscreen to protect exposed skin and wide-brimmed hats to help keep the head cool. Take frequent breaks during activity, retreating to cool and shaded areas. 

• Pace yourself. Start activity slowly before picking up the pace. If possible, acclimate to heat gradually, progressively increasing duration and intensity of activity over 1-2 weeks.

“Heat acclimatization is effective because the phasing in of exercise in the heat allows our body to slowly get used to the outside temperatures and gives our body a chance to adapt to the exercise we are performing,” Scarneo says.  

Ultimately, common sense is the strongest prevention tool. If exertion in the heat makes your heart pound and leaves you gasping for breath, stop all activity, retreat to a cool place (preferably air conditioned), and rest.

“We should identify when it is too hot outside for sport participation and alter our exercise routines accordingly,” Scarneo said. 

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