The 5-year period of 2005-2009 saw more exertional heat stroke-related deaths in organized sports than any other 5-year period in the past 35 years. The risk of exertional heat stroke appears highest in football, particularly during the preseason.

To estimate the incidence of exertional heat stroke events and assess the utilization of exertional heat stroke management strategies during the 2011 preseason in United States high school football programs.

Cross-sectional study; Level of evidence, 3.

A self-administered online questionnaire addressing the incidence of exertional heat stroke events and utilization of exertional heat stroke management strategies (eg, removing athlete's football equipment, calling Emergency Medical Services [EMS]) was completed in May to June 2012 by 1142 (18.0%) athletic trainers providing care to high school football athletes during the 2011 preseason.

Among all respondents, 20.3% reported treating at least 1 exertional heat stroke event. An average of 0.50 ± 1.37 preseason exertional heat stroke events were treated per program. Athletic trainers responding to exertional heat stroke reported using an average of 6.6 ± 1.8 management strategies. The most common management strategies were low-level therapeutic interventions such as removing the athlete's football equipment (98.2%) and clothing (77.8%) and moving the athlete to a shaded area (91.6%). Few athletic trainers reported active management strategies such as calling EMS (29.3%) or using a rectal thermometer to check core body temperature (0.9%). Athletic trainers in states with mandated preseason heat acclimatization guidelines reported a higher utilization of management strategies such as cooling the athlete through air conditioning (90.1% vs 65.0%, respectively; P < .001), immersion in ice water (63.0% vs 45.4%, respectively; P = .01), or fans (54.3% vs 42.0%, respectively; P = .06) and monitoring the athlete's temperature (60.5% vs 46.2%, respectively; P = .04).

Preseason exertional heat stroke events, which are likely to be fatal if untreated, were reported by one fifth of all athletic trainers in high school football programs. The standard of care is (and should be) to treat proactively; therefore, treatment is not a perfect proxy for incidence. Nevertheless, there is an urgent need for improved education and awareness of exertional heat stroke in high school football. Areas of improvement include the greatly increased use of rectal thermometers and immersion in ice water.