When Illness Sidelines a Young Athlete

baseball_athlete_illnessBeing sidelined by illness can be difficult for dedicated young athletes, as well as their parents who question when to keep their child off the field and when to send them back.

Depending on symptoms and energy levels, children can often still participate in sports when under the weather, says Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann, a CHOC Children’s at Mission Hospital pediatrician who works to provide health tips and guidance for young athletes.

If a child’s symptoms are “above the neck,” he or she can usually participate in athletic activities so long as energy levels are appropriate. “Above the neck” symptoms include a runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing and minor sore throat, she says.

“If you have a mild cold and no fever, and have enough energy, you can still play,” Dr. Winkelmann says.

But even if a young athlete feels well enough to exercise while in the final throes of a cold, he or she must plan on scaling back the intensity of play, she cautions.

“You need to understand that you won’t be able to practice at the same level,” Dr. Winkelmann says. “You need to speak up and tell your coach that you’re not 100 percent.”

However, a child with symptoms “below the neck” – chest congestion, respiratory ailments, gastrointestinal concerns, fatigue, fever or muscle aches – should stay off the field until well, Dr. Winkelmann says.

And though being sidelined by illness might be frustrating for committed athletes, taking a few days – even weeks – off from practice will not result in a significant setback in performance.

“It may take you a while to get back to where you were, but it’s much more prudent to take the time to rest your body when you’re sick,” Dr, Winkelmann says.

Young athletes can do some things to help speed the recovery process and get back on the field faster: Focus on rest by going to bed 30 minutes earlier than usual, Dr. Winkelmann advises. Also, limit dairy, sugar and processed foods, and increase fruits and vegetable intake.

When comes to returning to play, a child, especially one who suffered a respiratory illness, should first feel normal for one to two days after recovery, she says.

And above all, a child needs to trust her body, and mom and dad should listen to their parental instincts.

“I tell kids to listen to your body, not your coach or trainer or parents,” Dr. Winkelmann says. “Parents should trust their gut. They know their kid and their personality.”

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