Summer temperatures bring with them the risk of heat illnesses, as well as the necessity of knowing how to prevent them or be prepared if they occur.
“Heat illness is actually preventable but sometimes you don’t see the signs and symptoms until it’s too late,” says Stephanie Hsu, MD, a member of Gwinnett Medical Center’s Sports Medicine Committee. “There are a lot of factors to consider, from hydration to acclimatization, to knowing what types of events put us at risk.”
When the body becomes overheated, muscle cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke can occur. People in all climates should be cautious but those in humid areas should be extra vigilant.
“Being in hot and humid weather is worse than being in dry hot weather,” she says. “When the body’s internal temperature goes up, that’s when you start to suffer the effects of heat illness.
“The body cools itself by sweating and when it’s hot and humid – like it is in Georgia all the time – the humidity makes sweat evaporation difficult, so body heat increases. Then, at some point, your body begins to lose the mechanisms needed to cool. That’s when you start to suffer the more severe effects of heat illness, such as heat stroke.”
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is overcome by fatigue and dehydration associated with heat exposure during activity, like sports tournaments and two-a-day practices. Athletes suffering from heat exhaustion may experience chills, excessive sweating and vomiting or diarrhea. It is also commonly characterized by pale and clammy skin early on, shallow breathing and irritability. According to Hsu, these symptoms, and increased or abnormal fatigue and clumsiness can signify that an athlete needs immediate attention. In order to prevent the possibility of heat stroke, cooling the body down should be the number one priority.
“When [coaches] see one of their players look fatigued, or they look like they aren’t performing at their normal levels, they appear clumsy, dizzy, they’re starting to get nauseous or have headaches, that’s when you need to get that player out of the heat and get their feet up,” Hsu says. “The athlete should be cooled immediately to prevent any further risk. When your body temperature nears 104 degrees, you’re at risk of heat stroke. They need cooling towels, ice packs and fans; don’t hesitate to seek medical attention especially if there are any mental changes.”
Hsu says these illnesses can be prevented with proper preparation including slow acclimation to outdoor activities, wearing the right clothes and hydrating properly to replenish what’s lost during activity. While athletes are at risk, these illnesses don’t discriminate; anyone can experience them so being be aware of the risks and knowing what to do in case of an emergency is essential.
“You don’t have to be in athletics to suffer from heat illness,” she says. “Just being outside watching a concert can put you at risk of heat exhaustion – so it’s good for everybody to know the signs and symptoms.”
To learn more about the signs and symptoms associated with sports-related injury or illness, visit gwinnettsportsmed.com.