Researchers at the University of Florida in 1965 used the school's football team to test a special beverage they had developed to combat dehydration. The players liked the drink, which they named "Gatorade" after the university's mascot. After the Gators defeated Georgia Tech 27-12 in the 1967 Orange Bowl, the losing coach declared to a reporter: "We did not have Gatorade. That made the difference."
Gatorade and some 60 similar brands of sports drinks are popular. Americans spent $1-billion on such products last year. But what do these drinks do, and are they the best liquid to prevent dehydration in young children?
Children are more at risk than adults for developing heat-related illnesses. A youngster's body is about 60 percent water and generates more body heat relative to body size than does an adult's. Youngsters spend more time outside than do adults and adjust slowly to the sweltering temperatures of a typical Florida summer day. The more the heat, humidity and child's level of exercise, the more water they lose.
When the water in the body decreases, the classic symptoms of dehydration occur: muscle weakness, appetite loss, lethargy, flushed skin, dizziness, nausea and cramps. If dehydration is allowed to go on too long, muscle spasms, sunken eyes and eventually seizures, a coma or death can result.
Our bodies normally tell us when they do not have enough fluids. Unfortunately, children often do not pay attention to those signals. Most youngsters play hard and often get too wrapped up in their activities to take time for a drink. And children are too young to recognize the signs of dehydration, much less express their needs for fluids to others. It is up to parents to make sure children are properly hydrated.
But what drink? Water is probably the best source for replacing fluids in children since it is quickly absorbed by the body. Children should be encouraged to drink plenty of water before starting an outdoor activity and continue drinking periodically throughout the day. Older children who are exercising hard on a hot afternoon can easily sweat away one to two quarts of fluid per hour.
Other ways to prevent heat-related illness children:
Avoid sodas and other drinks with caffeine. The carbonation will make children feel bloated and will deplete their bodies' water, since caffeine is a natural diuretic and can cause the body to lose more fluid.
The so-called electrolyte replacement drinks contain electrolytes, sodium and potassium. But research has shown that only small amounts of electrolytes are lost during exercise, and they can be restored easily with a well-balanced diet. In addition, many sport drinks have a high concentration of sugar, which will slow the absorption of water in the body. Nothing in medical literature proves that products such as Gatorade, Powerade, All-Sport, etc. will make children perform any better than drinking plain water. (If the team uses a sport drink, dilute to half-strength with water.)
Keep small containers of water chilling in the refrigerator to encourage children to help themselves throughout the day.
Fruit and vegetable juices are okay since the sugar concentration is less than 6 percent to 8 percent. (Check nutrition labels.)
Encourage children to eat juicy fruits and vegetables (oranges, grapefruits and tomatoes) and foods with a high fluid content (pudding and yogurt).
Remind youngsters to take frequent breaks during outdoor activities, even if they do not feel thirsty.
A child with flushed, red cheeks who is not sweating should immediately be taken to a shady, cooler area. Lay the youngster with his feet slightly raised. Cool the child rapidly by removing excess clothing and begin sponging his body with lukewarm tap water. Slowly offer sips of water.
Immediately seek medical attention if the child acts confused, begins vomiting, has a rapid, but weak pulse or develops fast, shallow breathing.
With another Florida summer well under way, it is time for parents to be on the lookout for heat-related illnesses in their children. Heat and high humidity dramatically increase a child's need for fluids _ and the risk of dehydration _ so keep youngsters healthy and well hydrated.
Although sports drinks confer few benefits for children, they are frequently helpful for adults during extended strenuous exercise, such as running a marathon or five sets of aggressive tennis. In these situations, the added carbohydrate and sodium can prevent muscle fatigue and muscle cramps.
This column is meant to draw attention to the issues discussed and should not be relied upon as medical advice. It is not intended to replace the advice of your child's physician. Dr. Bruce A. Epstein has practiced pediatrics in St. Petersburg since 1973. He is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He is married, has three grown children and has two grandchildren.