During the summer months, high temperatures can sideline even the toughest competitors, as extreme conditions dehydrate and endanger anyone giving it their all in the hot, hot heat.
And while the heat-related illnesses that can result from these conditions are preventable, they are still unfortunately prevalent. In 2011, USA Today explained that these illnesses were still leading to deaths in young athletes, and the number was in fact rising.
The specific cause of these deaths is called exertional heat stroke. Its impact on athletics has been pronounced enough to give rise to The Heat Factor, a campaign dedicated to raising awareness about this deadly but avoidable illness.
EHS sits on the most extreme end of the spectrum of heat-related conditions, and its severity has been concerning enough to catch the attention of athletes and medical professionals across the country.
"Exertional heat stroke is literally your body cooking itself," explains Dr. Neha Raukar, a primary care sports physician at Rhode Island Hospital and an associate professor of emergency medicine at Brown University, who is working with The Heat Factor to raise awareness about EHS. "If you keep persisting in a warm environment, it could lead to death."
EHS most commonly occurs during the warm months, when athletes are still working themselves into playing shape. More needs to be done, Raukar says, to acclimate athletes to the playing conditions, keep them hydrated, and make them aware of the dangers of pushing too far past their limits.
NFL quarterback Drew Brees, a 10-time Pro Bowler who is also working with the Heat Factor, agrees. A lifetime of football has subjected him to grueling practices in the hottest parts of our country—including Texas, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
"You're out there for three hours, full pads, sweating non-stop," he says. "You can't drink enough water to replenish what you're losing. That's the way it is for a lot of teams. It can get away from you very quickly." (In 2001, complications from heat stroke during a preseason practice even took the life of former Minnesota Vikings offensive lineman Korey Stringer.)
And, of course, you have football's archaic fitness practices like two-a-days to worry about. Brees doesn't believe that two-a-days are necessary these days, a sentiment echoed by the NCAA, which recently banned the tradition from college sports.
"Your body needs the rest," he says. "You can exert yourself, get the work done you need. But the proper rest is required."
Education about exercising in the heat is also key, he notes.
"Bottom line is, know the risks going in," he says. "I just think there's too many benefits to all sports, especially football, when it comes to teamwork, work ethic, and overcoming adversity. It's well worth it. Let's just understand the risks."
If you're worried that someone may have sustained EHS, Raukar and Brees advise that you keep the acronym "H.E.A.T." in mind. The "H" stands for "high temperature." Be sure to pay attention to the body temperature of the person, as well as the environmental conditions in which they're exhibiting concerning behavior. The "E" is for "exercise or activity." If this person was exerting themselves in high heat, then EHS is possible. "A" is for "acting confused."
This is another key symptom of EHS, and is unfortunately what often leads it to be incorrectly diagnosed by coaches or players as a concussion. So, if you see signs of these first three letters, then that means "T"—"time to call 911." From there, a medical professional should work as quickly as possible to lower the body temperature of the individual.
Indeed, Raukar hopes the Heat Factor's campaign will help pave the way for a standardized response to EHS when it occurs—from players to coaches to athletic trainers to EMS teams. By leading the conversation about EHS, the Heat Factor can bridge these gaps.
"Let's make sure everybody is on the same page," she says. "Then we can grow together."