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Keeping kids hydrated in the heat

Summer weather means more beach days, more picnics and more outdoor fun with family and friends. But when temperatures and humidity levels spike, being outdoors can get uncomfortable — especially during exercise.

As a pediatric specialist in the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin Sports Medicine Program, I enjoy helping young athletes by providing care for everything from concussions to rehab to keeping kids healthy on the playing field. While recent research confirms that kids’ bodies handle heat and humidity in a similar way to adults, it’s still important to help kids stay healthy while participating in physical activity and sports in hot weather.

Prevention is the best cure

To avoid dehydration and heat illness, make sure kids are hydrated before exercise. Offer water or other healthy beverages and hydrating foods like fruit during the day prior to activity.

During games or exercise:

  • Kids should have frequent water breaks.
  • Plain water should do for most kids, although kids in strenuous athletic activity could benefit from electrolyte-supplemented beverages, too.
  • Children should NOT consume “energy drinks” as they contain caffeine, which can cause negative side effects.
  • Kids with fever or gastrointestinal illness should avoid exercise.

Smart sporting

It’s also a parent’s job to advocate for safe sporting policies at schools and in leagues. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and communicate with coaches to be sure the following best practices are being followed:

  • Kids require sufficient recovery and rest periods between sporting events — two hours is the recommended amount of time.
  • There should be an adaptation period to a new sport or preseason practice, including gradual exposure over 10-14 days to intensity, duration and amount of physical activity.
  • Clothing, uniforms and protective equipment should be appropriate for the weather.
  • Coaches should stress proper hydration techniques and ways to reduce heat illness risk.
  • Trained personnel should be available at games/practices to treat heat illness if it arises.

Signs of heat illness

The first result of dehydration in kids will be reduced performance on the field. While nobody wants that, more severe consequences call for immediate action.

Watch for these signs of heat illness:

  • Paleness or flushing
  • Dizziness or headache
  • Lack of sweat
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling cold or extremely hot

Any of these signs are reasons for kids to immediately stop participation and get appropriate medical attention, including rest and hydration. Kids with heat illness should not return to practice or competition for the rest of the game.

If you have concerns about your child, including persistent cramping during exercise, be sure to talk to your pediatrician.