Football season kicked off at high schools across the country last week, smack in the middle of one of the hottest summers on record for many states. For high school athletes, the high temperatures and stifling humidity can be deadly.
A total of 40 high school football players have died from heat stroke since 1995, with 5 of those deaths occurring in 2011, and dozens more are hospitalized each year with heat-related illness, according to annual report released in February 2012 by the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research (NCCSIR).
"There is no excuse for any number of heat stroke deaths since they are all preventable with the proper precautions," the report states.
Those precautions include gradually ramping up workout intensity to allow students to acclimate to the heat and activity level, limiting the number of practices in one day, giving athletes extended breaks, and making sure players stay hydrated, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations, a coalition of state athletic organizations.
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While much of the prevention and treatment of heat stroke, exhaustion, and dehydration falls on coaches and trainers, there are steps parents can take to make sure their student athlete stays safe in the heat.
Parents should have a sit-down with their teens' coaches before the season starts to go over the team's heat and hydration plans, says Fred Mueller, director of the NCCSIR at the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill.
"Be aware of what the coach's plans are during the heat … like the water breaks, working slowly, not working in the hot parts of the day, giving them a lot of breaks in the shade, letting them take their helmets off," he says.
When a student athlete has heat stroke, something as simple as a plastic kiddie pool filled with ice can be life saving. Several schools are keeping ice baths on the sidelines of their football fields, Mueller notes.
A new heat policy in Georgia requires schools to have cold immersion tubs on the football field. Those that don't can be fined up to $1,000. Two Georgia high school players died from heat stroke last year.
"The important thing is to get that temperature down as fast as possible," Mueller says.
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Another way parents can safeguard teen athletes from the heat is by ensuring they are hydrated before and after practices and by replenishing any nutrients they lost during practice by putting extra salt in their meals, Mueller says.
Knowing the symptoms of heat stroke and heat exhaustion—headaches, vomiting, dizziness, and cramping—is also important for parents and their teens, and parents should encourage their children to alert coaches if they start feeling any of those symptoms, he says.
Parents should notify coaches if their teen has medical issues, such as heart problems or sickle cell disease, which can increase their risk of heat stroke. The student's coach should also be alerted if the athlete has had heat-related issues in the past, Mueller says.
"If a kid does have a heat problem, keep a close eye on that kid, 'cause he's likely to have another one," he says. "Even if he had one a year before, that's the kind of kid you've got to watch."
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