High School Athletes Hit Hard by the Heat

Study Shows Heat-Related Illnesses Are Most Common During Preseason Football

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Laura J. Martin, MD

Aug. 19, 2010 -- Thousands of high school athletes, mostly football players, are sidelined every year due to heat-related illnesses, and most occur during the preseason, primarily in August, the CDC says in a new report.

The analysis of heat-related injuries, published in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for Aug. 20, 2010, examined data for the 2005-2009 seasons provided by the National High School Sports-Related Surveillance Survey Study.

The report also says that heat-related injuries are more likely to occur among overweight athletes.

Heat-related illnesses included in the study included dehydration, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke, which is considered a medical emergency and can lead to loss of consciousness and health problems affecting the heart, brain, and kidneys. Cases included in the analysis were those that were assessed by a medical professional and resulted in at least one day off from athletic activity.

Thirty-one high school football players have died from heat stroke since 1995, the report states, citing data from the National Center for Catastrophic Sports Injury Research.

"One death due to heat-related illness is too many," says Michael McGeehin, PhD, MSPH, and director of CDC's Division of Environmental Hazards and Health Effects. "Heat-related illness is preventable. The more we know about how and when it happens, the better we can prepare people who may be most at risk."

Avoiding Heat-Related Illness

The CDC says student athletes, their parents, coaches, and trainers should be educated about the symptoms of heat-related problems as well as the importance of proper hydration before, during, and after practices, games, or any strenuous activity.

The report says coaches should make sure student athletes have time to become acclimated to hot weather, increasing intensity and duration of practice sessions gradually over a two-week period.

Athletes should drink plenty of water and sports beverages and take breaks, or rest periods, to avoid heat-related injuries, the CDC says.

The report says that about 9,000 cases of heat illness occur every year, or a rate of 1.6 per 100,000 athlete exposures.

Among other findings:

  • 66.3% of heat injuries occur in August and 70.7% during practice or while playing football.
  • The rate of time lost to heat illness in football players is 10 times higher than the average for eight other sports.
  • During the 2005-2009 period, 118 heat illnesses that resulted in time off from the sport were reported, or an average of 29.5 per school year.
  • Football players who developed heat-related problems often had a body mass index indicating they were overweight (37.1%) or obese (27.6%).
  • 63.1% of the football players returned to the field one to two days after falling ill.

The researchers say that coaches and others in charge of athletics should take into consideration not just heat but relative humidity and wind speed.

The scientists say players who show signs of heat illness, including vomiting or headache, should be evaluated immediately by a health professional.

The CDC says it is developing an Internet-based course for coaches and others associated with high school sports to try to prevent, recognize, and properly respond to health problems triggered by heat.

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SOURCES: News release, CDC.

Gilchrist, J. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report; vol 59: pp 1009-1013.

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