Keep your athlete playing all summer: Understand the signs of dehydration

Understanding how heat-related problems occur and how to prevent dehydration, can help your child enjoy a fun summer and a great start to their athletic programs.

Children don't adapt as well as adults during exercise in hot, humid weather. They produce more heat, sweat less and may be less likely to drink enough fluids during exercise. All of these factors can increase the risk of dehydration or heat-related illness such as heat cramps, heat exhaustion and most importantly—heatstroke.

Who is at risk of dehydration?
Any child who exercises or plays in the heat may be at risk of dehydration. The concern is often greatest for young athletes who participate in football, soccer, cross-country running and other sports that start late in the summer. Pay special attention to young football players who face special risks in the heat when exercising hard in full protective gear. Children who rarely exercise, are overweight or obese, have had a recent illness with vomiting and diarrhea, or have had previous heat-related illnesses are at a higher risk of suffering heat-related illnesses and dehydration. 

Give your child time to acclimate to the heat. It’s important that your child become acclimated to the heat over several days. Heat-related problems most commonly occur within the first few days of heavy activity during hot weather. It’s better to take it easy at first, gradually increasing the amount of activity. If your child is wearing protective equipment, he or she may need more time to adjust. Young athletes may need up to two weeks to safely acclimate to the heat.

What are the signs and symptoms?
Even mild dehydration can affect your child's performance and make him or her lethargic and irritable. Left untreated, dehydration increases the risk of other heat-related illnesses. Know early signs and symptoms of dehydration, and teach them to your child. Even if he or she isn’t dehydrated or overheated, a friend may be. The signs and symptoms are:
  • Dry or sticky mouth
  • Thirst
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Cramps
  • Excessive fatigue
Encourage your child to report these signs and symptoms to a coach or other adult right away. Don't let embarrassment keep your child on the field, or playground. If dehydration is detected early, fluids and rest may be all that's needed. If your child seems confused or loses consciousness, seek emergency care.

Are energy drinks okay during sports?
Athletes often look for a quick boost to gain an edge. Some – including youth players whose bodies can’t handle the elevated levels of caffeine – are turning to caffeinated energy drinks to provide a burst prior to practices and games. This is a short-sighted and sometimes dangerous approach. Caffeinated energy drinks increase heart rate and can lead to an irregular heartbeat, affecting the athlete on the field and potentially leading to dangerous outcomes.  

A proper diet and adequate hydration provide young athletes all the energy they need. It's best to encourage drinking water beforehand, using sports drinks that restore carbohydrates and electrolytes during activity, and replacing nutrients and recover lost protein afterward with chocolate milk or a healthy meal. Carbohydrates and fat are the primary fuels for the human body, with carbohydrates the dominant energy provider during short-term exercise. Replenishing carbohydrates during exercise is the best way to maintain performance.