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Expert Available: MU Specialist Offers Tips to Prevent and Treat Heat Illness

June 27th, 2012

Story Contact: Jesslyn Chew,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

By Kate McIntyre

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Even 100-degree temperatures can’t keep many children from heading outside for day camps, baseball drills, marching band practices and theatre rehearsals. A University of Missouri expert on exercise physiology says being mindful of the heat and humidity is essential to preventing heat illness during children’s summer activities.

“Heat illness is the result of the body’s inability to adjust to the increase in body temperature,” said Steve Ball, MU Extension state specialist and associate professor of nutrition and exercise physiology. “When it’s especially hot or humid, bodies sweat more than usual, and people become dehydrated and suffer other symptoms of heat illness. This can happen with any form of physical exertion.”

Ball identifies the several incremental stages of heat illness, which if not dealt with immediately, can lead to medical complications and even death:

  • Heat cramps, the first sign of heat illness, are involuntary muscle spasms that can occur during or following physical exertion and generally result from an electrolyte imbalance due to perspiration and excessive loss of salts;
  • Heat exhaustion is a more serious state of heat illness. Its symptoms can include collapsing; excessive sweating; cold, clammy skin; normal or slightly elevated body temperature; paleness; dizziness; weak, yet rapid pulse; shallow breathing;  nausea and headache;
  • Heat stroke, the most advanced stage of heat illness, occurs when the body is unable to cool itself. Symptoms of heat stroke can include cessation of sweating; skin that appears dry and hot; strong, rapid pulse and difficulty breathing.

People with heat cramps and heat exhaustion should drink more water, reduce the level of intensity of their activities and seek shade. Those suffering from heat stroke need immediate medical attention and can be cooled by raising their feet, removing clothing, submerging them in cold water or placing wet sheets or ice packs on them.

“Young kids are more at risk for overheating because they don’t sweat as much and produce more body heat than adults while exercising,” Ball said. “Kids also don’t recognize the early warning signs of heat illness, so it’s especially important that adults remain vigilant about watching for and reacting to symptoms early on.”

Ball says the most effective way to manage heat illness is to prevent it. He offers these suggestions:

  • Drink water and other fluids before, during and after activities.
  • Eat water-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Be aware of the temperature and humidity so you can adjust when and how children exert themselves.
  • Take frequent breaks to cool off.

The Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology is jointly administered by MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural ResourcesCollege of Human Environmental Sciences and School of Medicine. In addition to his teaching and research duties, Ball is a nutrition and exercise physiology specialist for MU Extension.