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Thirsty soccer player drinking water on the sidelines of playing field.

Summer Safety: Understanding Heat-Related Illness

By: Jamie Legner, MSAT, LAT, ATC, CHKD Sports Medicine

Heat-related illnesses can have severe consequences and should never be ignored. They can happen to anyone, but athletes can be especially at risk. These conditions include muscle cramps, fainting, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke.

The most important thing to remember is that heat-related illnesses can be prevented. Steps taken before, during, and after activity can help you avoid serious illness.

  • Before activity: Ensure good hydration and nutrition.
  • During activity: Provide plenty of water breaks in a shaded or air-conditioned area. Activities should be modified as the temperature and humidity rise. This could include moving exercise indoors, avoiding outdoor activity during the hottest part of the day, limiting to 10 to 15 minutes at a time, and minimizing equipment (such as pads or helmets) by reducing contact activities.
  • After activity: Replace lost fluids and electrolytes.

When a heat illness does occur, it’s important to know the symptoms of each condition, the differences between them, and the proper treatment.

Muscle Cramps

Muscle cramps are most likely to occur in hot and humid environments but can happen with any physical activity. They are typically related to an imbalance of electrolytes in the body, and can be treated by drinking fluids containing electrolytes, such as magnesium, potassium, and sodium. Gentle stretching may also provide some relief. Though not an emergency, muscle cramps can be a precursor to more serious heat-related illnesses.


Fainting, also called heat syncope, is another condition that may be a symptom of a more serious illness. The athlete should be moved to a shady area and placed on their back with legs elevated off the ground. Offer only small sips of cool fluids to prevent shocking their system, which can happen if you introduce too much liquid at one time. Monitor the athlete for any signs of further illness.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is a serious condition but can be prevented with good hydration and activity limitations. Some signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion include fatigue, nausea, chills, and confusion. To manage heat exhaustion, move the athlete to a cool area, elevate their legs, and monitor their ability to breathe. Give cool fluids in small amounts. You can also use ice or cold, wet towels on the back of the neck to help them cool down. Monitor the person closely as heat exhaustion can quickly become more serious and turn into heat stroke. It is imperative to treat the athlete as soon as the symptoms are recognized. The person should not return to activity the same day.

Heat Stroke

Heat stroke is a medical emergency that requires immediate recognition and activation of emergency medical services. Signs and symptoms can include no sweat production, severe confusion, vomiting, dizziness or fainting, and rapid heart rate. The person’s core body temperature may reach above 104 degrees. This can damage organs and cause the body to shut down. If you suspect heat stroke, call 911 immediately, and work to cool the person down. The individual should be transported by ambulance to the nearest hospital as soon as possible for definitive care.

After treatment for heat stroke, an athlete should not return to sports in the first 48 hours. Instead, they should undergo a gradual return to full participation over the course of three to four days, depending on hydration status.

Heat related-illnesses have the potential to turn very severe, very quickly. Prevention is the best way to keep these conditions at bay. Keep your athletes, your children, and yourselves safe by knowing the signs and symptoms of heat illness and how to treat them once they are recognized.

About CHKD Sports Medicine

About CHKD Sports Medicine  CHKD's sports medicine program offers the most comprehensive care for your young athlete. From diagnosis and treatment to customized rehabilitation plans, we specialize in physical therapy and injury prevention programs for active children and teens. Our team is composed of pediatric orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists, physician assistants, certified athletic trainers and pediatric sports medicine physical therapists.