By Christopher Ina, MA, LAT, ATC, Athletic Training Coordinator for Wake Forest Baptist Health

According to the Centers for Disease Control, it is estimated that 240 people die each year in the United States of heat-related illness. Heat stroke is ranked third in cause of death (behind head and neck injuries and heart conditions) of U.S. high school athletes. This becomes an even greater concern in younger athletes. How to recognize heat-related illness Kids are susceptible to heat-related illness because their small bodies generate more heat than their few sweat glands can handle. Plus, they don’t always drink enough to replace the fluid they lose in sweat, leading to dehydration.

Here are signs and symptoms for the most common heat illnesses:

  • Heat cramps: Painful leg or stomach cramps are caused by dehydration and a loss of minerals. Massaging tight muscles helps relieve the pain. However, if pain persists for an hour, get medical attention.
  • Heat exhaustion: Fatigue, headache, nausea, and pale or clammy skin indicates a child is becoming seriously overheated. If symptoms last more than an hour despite your efforts, get medical attention.
  • Heat stroke: If a child is disoriented, has hot dry skin, a rapid pulse or is unconscious, his or her temperature regulating system has failed. Core temperature may even rise to 106 degrees. Call for emergency help immediately.
  • Find more information on how to protect your child from a heat related illness at

What should be done?

The basic first aid for heat cramps and heat exhaustion is to cool the athlete as quickly as possible. Fluid replacement by drinking water or a sports drink is the first step. Cool the athlete rapidly by moving him or her to a cool location (shade, air conditioning, etc.), remove sweat saturated clothes (if appropriate), and apply cold towels/ water/ice to the athlete’s body. If heat cramps or heat exhaustion go untreated for too long, the condition can gradually progress to a full blown case of heat stroke.

Heat stroke is a medical emergency and Emergency Medical Services (911) should be contacted immediately. Emergency Services should transport the athlete to the nearest hospital for specialized treatment. While waiting, bring the athlete indoors and sponge him or her in cool water or put them in a tub of cool water. Do not give fluids.

How can heat illness be prevented?

  • Athletes should gradually acclimate or adjust to the heat. A graduated conditioning program should be implemented.
  • Athletes should wear light-colored, lightweight athletic clothing. (Darker clothes attract more heat.) Water breaks should be taken at least every 15 to 30 minutes (every 10 minutes in more humid weather). Encourage athletes to drink water even if they are not thirsty.
  • Modest salting of food at meals can help to replenish sodium lost due to sweating.
  • Identifying more at-risk athletes (i.e. those who are overweight, out of shape, seem to sweat less) is also important to help prevent heat-related illnesses.

With the beginning of the school fall sports season right around the corner, Wake Forest Baptist Health is providing a free booklet full of nutrition, conditioning and recovery tips, designed to help keep student athletes healthy and injury-free. Download our free guide, full of expert information.

To schedule an appointment with one of our sports medicine experts, call 888-716-WAKE (9253).

 * Sponsored by Wake Forest Baptist Health