The Heat Is On! Protecting Our Student-Athletes from Heat Related Illness Comes Down to Preparation and Education

A thermometer looking into a sunny day indicating it's hot outside.

- 8/03/2021

With high school football games starting later this month, teams across the Gulf Coast are working harder than ever to make sure they’re prepared. That sometimes means practicing twice per day in the tremendous August heat.

Temperatures in the 90s and heat indices over 100 aren’t easy conditions for athletes to prepare in for the upcoming season. Thankfully there are ways to minimize the risk of heat-related illness. And, there are warning signs to help identify a situation in which a student-athlete may be suffering.

Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine provides athletic trainers (ATs) to all public high schools in Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties. At the beginning of the school year, those ATs meet with their coaches and student-athletes to discuss the dangers of heat illness. Easy ways players can protect themselves include getting adequate sleep every night, eating a well-balanced diet and hydrating throughout the day (especially during and after activity). “During the first week, the equipment worn should be lighter so the athletes can better acclimate to the heat, and there should be more frequent breaks,” said Matt McGraw, regional sports medicine liaison at Andrews Institute. “It takes our bodies about seven to 14 days to adapt to exercising in the heat.” McGraw notes a good rule of thumb is a minimum of one five-minute break for every 30 minutes of activity, though longer and more frequent breaks may be necessary for safe participation.

There are environmental and personal risk factors that can lead to heat-related illness. Environmental factors include high ambient temperature, high humidity, direct sun exposure, high workload and duration and excessive clothing and/or athletic equipment. Individual risk factors include poor physical condition, lack of acclimation to the heat, sleep loss, dehydration and recent illness. A history of gastrointestinal, diabetic, heart or kidney problems, prior history of heat illness and use of diuretics or certain medications (i.e., antihistamines, anti-hypertensives, attention-deficit hyperactive disorder drugs) may also be factors.

McGraw notes, “Warning signs of minor heat illness include dizziness, cramps, muscular tightening and spasms and lightheadedness.” Early signs of exertional heat stroke, a medical emergency, include headache, dizziness, confusion and disorientation, excessive sweating and/or flushing, fatigue, nausea and/or vomiting and chills and/or goose bumps. Other signs include elevated core body temperature, signs of nervous system dysfunction such as confusion, aggression, loss of consciousness, rapid breathing and increased heart rate.

If an exertional heat stroke or other heat-related illness is suspected, the first step should be to call 911 and get the EMS team involved. With exertional heat stroke, it is critical to rapidly cool the victim by immersing them into cold water. Other ways to treat exertional heat stroke include removing the person from the heat to an air-conditioned or shaded area, having them remove any unnecessary equipment, attempting to cool them and having them sip on water.

There is no avoiding the risk to heat related illness on the Gulf Coast in August, especially for those working outside or exercising for long periods of time. But education around how to lower the risks and spot someone in trouble is the best way to make sure our student-athletes stay safe.

For more information on heat-related illness and protecting our student athletes, email our sports medicine outreach department at