Drink up to steer clear of heat-related illness

The scorching heat of summer 2012 made it among the hottest on record in communities across the nation, including the Louisville area, and chances are good this summer will be just as hot.

That means young athletes who play sports or do strenuous exercise in hot weather are at risk for heat-related illness, a group of conditions that includes dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Youth who will be practicing and playing during the summer months must pay attention to how much they are drinking before, during and after exercise to ensure they stay hydrated.

“The body needs to sweat to keep itself from overheating,” said John Lach, M.D., director of sports medicine at Norton Audubon Hospital. “Because sweat is made up of 95 percent water, in hot weather when we sweat excessively we can become dehydrated. Sweating will cease, and then the body can go into heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which are very serious.”

Youth who are particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness include those who:

  • Must wear protective gear for their sport
  • Are overweight
  • Had a recent illness and/or are on certain medications
  • Have a chronic medical condition, such as diabetes
  • Are not well rested

Age plays a role in how much daily fluid intake is needed to stay hydrated. Children ages 4 to 13 need 5 to 8 cups of fluid a day. Teenage boys and adult men need 13 cups, and teenage girls and adult women need 9 cups a day.

For athletes, those amounts increase. In addition to the above recommendations, those performing strenuous exercise should drink 2 to 3 cups of water two hours prior to exercise. They should take frequent water breaks during exercise, drinking 1/2 to 1 cup every 20 minutes even if they don’t feel thirsty. Then, they should continue drinking after exercising.

“Often kids don’t ask for breaks or drinks while playing,” Dr. Lach said. “It is up to parents and coaches to make sure children are staying hydrated, taking breaks and drinking enough.”

What’s the best drink for staying hydrated?

For activities lasting one hour or longer in summer heat, a sports drink may be a better option over water. Sports drinks provide carbohydrates for energy plus electrolytes (sodium, potassium and magnesium) for hydration.

“Sports drinks will help replace fluids and electrolytes lost through sweating plus provide energy to muscles,” Dr. Lach said.

When choosing a sports drink, look for those containing 14 g carbs, 28 mg potassium and 100 mg sodium per serving. Carbs should come from glucose, sucrose or fructose. Never choose a carbonated beverage.

If you are concerned about the amount of sugar in sports drinks, Dr. Lach says don’t be — as long as you are exercising hard.

“You are burning that sugar — the carbs — and your body needs it,” he said. “These drinks were created to have the right amount of carbs and electrolytes to support an athlete’s needs.”

If you are watching your sugar intake and prefer a low- or no-sugar sports drink, pay attention to the amount of potassium and sodium in it.

“Many times the amount of electrolytes has changed too,” Dr. Lach said. “Read the label carefully. Make sure it has the right amount of both potassium and sodium.”

Stay ahead of the hydration game

Once dehydration sets in, heat exhaustion and heat stroke can accelerate quickly. Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency and can cause loss of consciousness; damage to the heart, brain and kidneys; and even death.

Athletes, parents and coaches should be able to recognize the signs of dehydration. While thirst is an obvious sign, by the time you get thirsty you are already behind the game.

Signs of dehydration:

  • Dry, sticky mouth
  • Dizziness and/or headache
  • Decreased urination
  • Fatigue
  • Muscle cramps

Signs of heat exhaustion include those for dehydration plus:

  • Confusion
  • Pale skin
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Profuse sweating
  • Fainting

If you or someone around you is experiencing these symptoms, drink plenty of cool fluids, remove tight or unnecessary clothing, and apply fans, iced towels or other cooling measures available. If symptoms progress to behavioral changes, seizures, loss of consciousness or lack of sweating, call 911 immediately.

–Jennifer Reynolds


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