By Dev Mishra, M.D.
President, Sideline Sports Doc
Clinical Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Stanford University
- Coaches need to maintain awareness of possible heat illness during the early days of September, when air temperatures can be high
- Sweating through exposed skin is one of the body’s most effective ways to reduce the risk of heat illness, but football helmets and protective equipment limit the amount of exposed skin
- Removing the helmet when not involved in play can be an effective way to vent off heat and reduce heat illness risk
Youth and high school football practices are now in high gear, and end-of-summer air temperatures can be very high. This means that there’s still a considerable risk of dehydration and heat illness, especially when practicing in pads and helmets.
Heat illness isn’t just an issue for teams practicing in 100-degree days, it can occur even in 80-degree temperature. Many studies have shown that even at lower air temperature a young athlete’s internal body temperature can exceed 100 degrees (98.6 degrees is generally considered “normal”) and can reach as high as 104 degrees. When a body temperature gets that high there is the risk of problems with mental status, cramping, and a severe medical emergency called heat stroke.
One of the body’s methods of dealing with excessive heat is by cooling through sweat of exposed skin. Arms, legs, neck, head- any of these areas can essentially vent off heat and help regulate body temperature. The problem is that with football clothing and equipment there can be very limited skin exposure to release the heat.
Most youth coaches know the benefits of water breaks and keeping up with hydration. USA Football has a number of excellent tips on hydration for young players, and this section on “hydration myths” is interesting.
One under-utilized method of cooling for football players is helmet removal. The surface area of the head and neck are about 10% of the available skin surface area, so that means the head and neck are good possible sources to vent off excess heat.
If you’re standing on the sidelines not involved in play on the field- take your helmet off and hold it in your hands. That will help with cooling and you’re ready to go immediately if called on to the field. For non-contact days coaches should consider no helmet drills, and for walk through days consider no helmets and no pads, or just shoulder pads only.
Coaches have learned a lot about the importance of proper hydration and heat awareness, so keep up the good work with water breaks, ice and fluid available at practice, and misters from garden hoses.
Good attention to details of heat and hydration along with appropriate use of helmets and safety equipment can go a long way to decreasing risk of heat illness. At least in theory heat illness is totally preventable.