Treatment and Prevention of Dehydration in Sports

With high school football season in full swing, it is time to stress the importance of hydration in young athletes. Even athletes in top condition can be severely affected by Florida’s hot, humid weather when exercising, making dehydration and heat exhaustion a very real and potentially dangerous threat.

Each year, nearly 10,000 high school athletes in the U.S. suffer heat-related illnesses that require medial attention and cause them to miss practices or games, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Most football teams have practice at least twice daily. Coaches, doctors and on-staff medical assistants have to constantly watch for signs of heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke, according to Dr. James W. Berk, ‘Fast Access’ physician at The Orthopaedic Institute’s Alachua Office. Athletes are even weighed twice a day in order to watch water weight.

“Athletes need to drink more than they think they need,” Dr. Berk said. “By the time you are thirsty, you are already dehydrated.”

Tips for avoiding dehydration:

  • Don’t drink liquids that contain caffeine, alcohol or large amounts of sugar
  • Before practice, drink 8-10 ounces of cool liquids
  • During practice, drink 16-20 ounces of cool liquids per hour

Without proper hydration, athletes will typically experience heat cramps in their arms, legs or abdomen. These cramps usually occur after several hours of exertion in the heat and are painful enough to take a player out of the game. When heat cramps occur, athletes should stop activity and sit in a cool place, drink a cool liquid with electrolytes and gently stretch and massage the muscle until the cramp subsides.

Heat exhaustion is another side effect of dehydration. It also occurs after long periods of heat exposure when the body’s sweat response stops working properly. Symptoms of heat exhaustion include nausea, dizziness, muscle cramps and pale, cool skin. If ignored, heat exhaustion may lead to heat stroke. When symptoms occur, athletes should stop activities, rest and drink cool liquids.

Heat stroke is the most serious of all heat-related conditions because the body’s cooling system has shut down. This causes the body temperature to rise to dangerous levels of over 105 F. Symptoms of heat stroke are hot, dry skin, lack of sweating, a fast pulse, confusion and sometimes seizures or coma. Heat stroke requires immediate medical attention and is preventable by watching for signs of heat exhaustion.

All of these heat-related illnesses are caused by dehydration and a lack of body awareness. Athletes, coaches and medical staff need to constantly monitor water intake and warning signs of heat exhaustion.

“The key thing to remember is that it is easier to prevent heat illness than to treat it once symptoms develop,” Dr. Berk said.