Staying safe while playing sports in the heat

Students who feel healthy enough to play competitive school sports may think they are strong enough to tough it out during sweltering practices or competitions. Almost every year, however, we hear about students collapsing on the playing field or getting dehydrated and sick during hot weather.  

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports heat-related illness during athletic activities is a leading cause of disability or death among U.S. high school athletes.  

Dr. Mandie Tibball Svatek, a pediatrician at University Health and UT Health San Antonio, competed in sports when she was a student. She answers questions about what parents and coaches can do to prevent heat from sidelining young athletes. 

What should parents do before signing up their children for sports programs at the beginning of the school year when it still feels like summer outside?

For children who are going to participate in sports, it's important to go to your health care provider, have your child assessed and have that discussion about starting a sport. Every child is different. You can have a child with a particular health problem that might prevent them from acclimatizing well to the heat. 

What specific conditions may make it difficult or dangerous for a child to play sports when it’s hot?

A child with ADHD on certain medications may have problems with any sort of heat intolerance. Obese children with a BMI greater than 85% may not tolerate the heat as well. 

You also have to think about children who have been playing day-in and day-out, who haven't had the opportunity to stay hydrated or rest their muscles, which can make them more susceptible to heat-related illnesses.

Is there a temperature or threshold that should trigger extra precautions? 

It's important to understand what the heat index might be. Devices such as a wet bulb thermometer can measure the heat index that day, or you can look at apps to see what the predicted heat index will be. 

If it's going to exceed 95 degrees, you need to talk about whether you have practice earlier in the day or later in the evening. Or do you take frequent 15 to 20 minute breaks during practice?

Do you have less than the (usual) practice time? Perhaps have a discussion about having practice at all, because that leaves your population very susceptible to having heat-related illnesses. 

If I’m a coach observing student athletes, or I’m the athlete, what warning signs indicate the need to take a break or move to a cooler environment?

When you're starting to develop heat exhaustion, you're going to feel a lot of cramps in your legs. They can feel nauseous. They can have vomiting. They can feel dizzy. They can feel really tired and fatigued. They can be short of breath. If their skin is flushed and moist, they may not be able to cool themselves. 

Is there a conversation parents should have with the school or coaches before children play sports during hot weather? 

The first thing that you can ask: What are the plans of action? A lot of times these coaches and teams already have that plan. There’s an early morning practice or they’re making that decision to shorten the practice times. They’re having those frequent breaks. 

For children ages 9-12, you're talking about hydrating three to eight ounces every 15 to 20 minutes. If a child is in that adolescent or above range, you're talking about hydrating one to 1.5 liters every 15 to 20 minutes. 

It’s important to assure that they have those established guidelines.

Want to know more about student athletes avoiding heat-related illnesses? United Educators and the CDC have additional resources. 

Subscribe icon
Get health living and wellness information, recipes, and patient stories from University Health.
View other related content by:

Tell us your patient story

Share your inspiring personal story of hope and healing at University Health.