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Each August, countless athletes flock to football fields in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Players pile on pads and exercise their fatigued muscles, committing themselves fully to their sport. Tragically, a dozen athletes sacrifice too much; about 12 high school and college football players die during practice each year.

The majority of deaths are related to known or undiagnosed heart conditions worsened by elevated temperatures. Many of these cases have occurred in Texas, and some here in the metroplex.  

Texas Football Players Are At High Risk

Heat-related injuries are 10 times more common in high school football players than in any other sport. Unsurprisingly, many incidents have occurred during two-a-day practices, an intense preparation for the upcoming season. As noted in a Huffington Post article, rigorous practices often overstrain players’ bodies, especially after months of vacation.

“Playing outdoor sports in the Texas summer provides an additional risk with our extreme heat and humidity,” Jeff Erdner, co-owner and staff physician at Highland Park Emergency Room and Preston Hollow Emergency Room, said. “Players, coaches and even spectators who are unprepared and unaware can suffer from heat-related illness.”

Nonprofit Provides Discounted Screenings

In 2009, Zac Schrah arrived to another practice – his last practice. Without warning, Zac collapsed and died at 16 years old. His family determined that a congenital heart disease caused his premature death.

Now, a nonprofit organization called Living For Zachary is dedicated to raising awareness of undiagnosed heart issues in teenagers. The organization is currently partnering with Walgreens to provide screenings, which help detect heart abnormalities and the potential for sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) with 99 percent accuracy.

Understand The Cause Of Heat Illness

In addition to screenings, it’s important for athletes to understand the risk and cause of heat exhaustion. As described in the Huffington Post, “Elevated body temperature or hyperthermia occurs when the body accumulates heat faster than it can get rid of it. Under normal conditions, sweating transfers the body heat through evaporation, but this becomes more difficult as the humidity increases.”

Exercising spikes your body’s temperature 15-20 times greater than normal conditions. Higher body temperatures combined with dehydration can lead to severe illness and even fatality.  

Children Are Also In Danger  

High school athletes aren’t the only ones in danger – younger children are also vulnerable to heat-induced injuries. This is especially true for children who are overweight, a population that has risen to 47.1 percent of high school football players and one in three American children.

“It is important to note that children with underlying medical conditions, recent illness, those who are overweight or those who are out of shape are more prone to heat-related illness,” Erdner said.

Awareness Can Save A Life  

The first step in preventing heat-induced illnesses is awareness. “In order to prevent heat illness, it is imperative that both coaches and athletes understand the symptoms and ways to prevent them,” Erdner said.

He continued, “Coaches need to understand the importance of acclimating to the heat.  Starting out slow and gradually spending more time in the heat helps the body's ability to deal with it.  Sometimes it can take weeks to fully acclimate.”

Athletes should also take the following precautions:

Drink water every 10-20 minutes, even when you’re not thirsty. Erdner said sports drinks should be reserved for endurance training, as they contain excess sugar

Wear light colored, loose clothing to help prevent a rise in body temperature.

Allow 10-14 days to acclimate to the heat. This may require preparation before mandatory sports practice.

Be aware of signs of a heat stroke: nausea, vomiting, headache, dizziness, abdominal pain and cramping.

“Heat-related illness can range from mild dehydration to severe heat stroke,” Erdner said. “If recognized early, the serious consequences can be avoided.”

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