Growing Athletes May Be at Risk For Dehydration

This content has been clinically reviewed by Maneesha Agarwal, MD.

Try as we might to pack our kids’ gym bags, backpacks and lunchboxes with water bottles, it would appear that they’re still not getting enough to drink—especially children who play sports.

About two-thirds of young athletes are significantly dehydrated before practice, according to the American College of Sports Medicine. This not only impacts their performance on the field, it also puts them at increased risk of dangerous heat illnesses.

Even mild dehydration can cause headaches, irritability and reduced cognitive (thinking) functioning. More severe dehydration can lead to a trip to the emergency room for heat  exhaustion or heatstroke.

Dehydration Risk Factors and Symptoms

Kids are at greater risk of dehydration than adults because they sweat less and produce more heat during physical activity. Also, kids don’t always realize that they’re thirsty, so by the time they want something to drink, they may already be dehydrated. That’s why it’s important for parents to remind (or maybe nag) their young athletes to drink plenty of fluids.

Other risk factors for sports dehydration include:

  • Wearing heavy clothing or protective gear that add to heat retention
  • Being “out of shape”—kids who rarely exercise
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Recently being sick with an illness involving diarrhea, vomiting or fever
  • Having a chronic disease like diabetes
  • Having had a previous heat illness

If your child plans to play sports this summer, give him time to acclimate to the heat before stepping out on the field. Make sure he takes it easy during the first few days of practice in hot temperatures and wears light-colored, lightweight, loose-fitting clothing if possible.

Parents, coaches and caregivers should also be alert to symptoms of dehydration:

  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Having a dry or sticky mouth
  • Producing less urine and darker urine
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Irritability
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Stomach cramps

 

What to Drink (Hint: It's Not a Sports Drink)

There are plenty of ways to keep your child healthy and hydrated when he’s playing sports. The best choice, always, is water. Make sure your young athlete drinks water before, during (4 to 8 ounces of water every 20 minutes or so) and after practice, even if he’s not thirsty. 

Steer clear of sodas and energy drinks, which often contain high levels of caffeine, artificial ingredients and sugar. The American Academy of Pediatrics says energy drinks should never be consumed by children or adolescents because of the stimulants they contain.

In many cases, it’s hard to tell how much caffeine is in a product by looking at the label. Some energy drinks contain more than 500 mg of caffeine—the equivalent of 14 cans of caffeinated soda.

Fruit juices should be avoided, too, because they can cause stomach irritation.

What about “sports drinks”? Sports drinks, like Gatorade and Powerade, contain carbohydrates, minerals, electrolytes and flavoring and are intended to replace water and electrolytes lost through sweating during exercise. These beverages should be limited to occasions when your child participates in vigorous physical activity lasting longer than an hour such as running, biking, soccer, basketball and hockey. Use them sparingly and in combination with water. They’re not for the casual athlete because they’re high in calories.

Creative Ways to Keep Your Young Athlete Hydrated

Your kids will feel better and play better if they’re hydrated. Here are some tricks for getting young athletes to drink fluids:

  • Jazz up water by infusing it with flavor. Try adding a splash of orange juice to a glass of water or to a full water bottle, or add a lemon or lime.
  • Flavored seltzers are a good alternative for kids who don’t like to drink water.
  • Serve frozen (100 percent) juice popsicles as a snack.
  • Freeze ice cube trays with berries and add them to water to keep it extra cold.
  • Serve watery foods during breaks in practice. Try soups, juicy fruits and vegetables like cucumber slices, watermelon, oranges and grapes. Other foods that contain water include milk, yogurt, iced tea and ice cream.
  • Make fluids fun by serving them in colorful glasses with crazy-shaped straws.
  • Let kids choose their own water bottle—so they’ll use it.
  • Offer kids small amounts of water throughout the day instead of one large beverage.
  • Freeze some freezer-safe water bottles for ice-cold water all day long.

This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.