Heat-related illnesses in children playing sports

Children are especially vulnerable

Children are among those most at risk for these illnesses. One reason is because they don’t adjust to changes in environmental heat as quickly as adults do. In addition, they sweat less and produce more body heat than adults do when engaging in physical activity. Kids also may not always think to rest and drink enough fluids when playing, participating in sports and playing.

Some children are more susceptible than others to heat-related illnesses, including those who:

  • Have chronic health conditions
  • Take certain medications
  • Are overweight or obese
  • Wear heavy clothing, such as marching band or football uniforms, during physical activity
  • Have had a heat-related illness before

Signs of heat cramps

Heat cramps are the mildest form of heat-related illness. This is associated with excessive sweat losses that decreases salt in the body, dehydration and muscle fatigue. Symptoms of heat cramps may include:

  • Painful muscle contractions, usually affect larger muscle groups
  • Affected muscles may feel firm to the touch
  • Dehydration

Signs of heat exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is the most common form of heat illness during athletic competition. This is caused due to high temperatures, humidity and heat index. This high heat stress increases core body temperature in the body. If left untreated, it can lead to heatstroke. Symptoms of heat exhaustion may include:

  • Muscle cramps
  • Core temperature less than 104º F
  • Syncope
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Dizziness
  • Accelerated heart rate

Signs of heatstroke

Exertional heatstroke is the most severe heat-related illness and can be fatal if left untreated. This is 100% preventable. This occurs when the body can’t control its internal body temperature and the body can’t dissipate heat appropriately. Heatstroke is an emergency that can lead to syncope, altered mental status and even death. It requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms of heatstroke may include:

  • Altered mental status (i.e combative behavior, confusion, or yelling)
  • Core temperature higher than 104º F
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Nausea/ Vomiting

What to do for a heat-related illness

This chart lists first-aid and treatment measures for heat-related illnesses. If your child sees a doctor, though, he or she will decide which treatment is best for your child.


Heat-related illness  First-aid and treatment measures 
Heat cramps
  • Move your child to a cool place and have him or rest.
  • Remove excess clothing.
  • Place cool cloths on skin.
  • Fan skin.
  • Have your child cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar, such as Gatorade®.
  • Stretch cramped muscles slowly and gently.
Heat exhaustion
  • Move your child to a cool place and have him or rest.
  • Remove excess clothing.
  • Place cool cloths on skin.
  • Fan skin.
  • Have your child cool sports drinks containing salt and sugar, such as Gatorade®.
  • If there is no improvement or your child is unable to drink fluids, call your child’s doctor or take your child to an emergency department right away.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency medical service immediately!
  • Move your child to a cool place and have him or her rest.
  • Remove excess clothing.
  • Drench skin with cool water.
  • Fan skin.
  • Place ice bags in the armpits and groin area.
  • Offer your child cool fluids if he or she is alert and able to drink.
  • Cold water immersion

Preventing heat-related illnesses

Fortunately, there are plenty of strategies that can help prevent heat-related illnesses:

  • Know the temperature and humidity. Check the heat index, which indicates how hot it really feels when humidity is combined with the temperature. The Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association recommends checking the temperature and humidity 30 minutes before an activity begins and checking again throughout the day. For example, a temperature of 95º F with a humidity reading of 35 percent is more likely to cause heat illness.
  • Drink plenty of fluids during intense and/or outdoor activities, especially on hot and humid days. Choose sports drinks and water. Avoid fluids with caffeine, including coffee and soft drinks, since these can cause dehydration.
  • Wear light-colored, lightweight, loose-fitting clothing on hot and humid days.
  • Schedule vigorous activities for cooler times of the day.
  • Eat smaller, more frequent meals on hot and humid days, and choose foods high in carbohydrates.
  • Take rest breaks in shady or cool areas.
  • Wear a hat and sunglasses. Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
  • Increase time spent outdoors gradually to get used to the heat.
  • Mist with a spray bottle to avoid becoming overheated.
  • Spend as much time indoors as possible on hot and humid days. 

If your child has a medical condition or is taking medication, ask your child’s doctor for more advice on preventing heat-related illnesses.

For more information

The National Federation of State High School Associations Sports Medicine Advisory Committee has developed guidelines for reducing the risk of heat-related illness injuries and deaths in athletics. In addition, this organization offers coaches a free online course about heat-related illness prevention.

Call us

To speak with a sports medicine expert or request an appointment, call:

(414) 604-7512

Licensed athletic trainers and nurses are available 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. You can leave a message anytime, and your call will be answered as soon as possible.

Request a speaker from our orthopedics and sports medicine team.

Sports nutrition counseling services

Teenage boy smiling after he took a bite of a red apple

Children's Wisconsin offers sports nutrition counseling services to help patients and families who have concerns and questions about diet, hydration, sports injury recovery, and overall healthy eating for performance.