The science of heat exhaustion: Australian Open highlights its dangers

WATCH ABOVE: Players at the Australian Open continue to battle intense heatwave. NBC’s Michelle Kosinski reports.

TORONTO – Athletes, ball boys and girls, and even spectators may be pushing themselves to the limit during the Australian Open as temperatures soar to record highs.

Temperatures in Melbourne soared to 44 C on Wednesday as players vied for a Grand Slam title.

Canadian Frank Dancevic, who fainted during his match on Tuesday, told media that he saw Snoopy before collapsing.

READ MORE: Heat wave, wildfires strike across southern Australia

“I couldn’t keep my balance anymore and I leaned over the fence, and when I woke up people were all around me,” he said. After receiving medical attention, he returned to the match and lost in straight sets.

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“It’s hazardous to be out there. It’s dangerous,” Dancevic said, criticizing the tournament for not having suspended play. “Until somebody dies, they’re just going to keep playing matches in this heat.”

And he may be right.

Our bodies try to keep an average temperature of around 37 C. It does this in two ways: by a process called vasodilation and sweating.

Vasodilation sends warm blood out to the skin’s surface. The warm blood is closer to the air outside, therefore moving the heat away from the body. This is how it tries to cool the body.

Sweating allows the body to get rid of heat by moving water to the body’s surface. The water then evaporates.

But in Australia, the heat is making it much more difficult for the body to cool itself off.

Frank Dancevic of Canada lies on the court after collapsing during his first round match against Benoit Paire of France as temperatures topped at 43 C (108 F) at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi).

“In the Australian Open, you have a third challenge..the air temperature is warmer than your body… You’re actually not losing heat, you’re gaining it,” Stephen Cheung, Canada Research Chair in Environmental Ergonomics and a professor at the University of Brock’s Kinesiology Department, who studies the effects of temperature on our bodies. “So the only way to lose heat is through evaporation, through sweating.”

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This causes you to lose fluid, which in turn causes dehydration. As well, your heart rate increases, putting your body through a lot of stress.

Cheung said that the best way to combat the effects of the heat is to be well hydrated — especially before heading outside.

“There’s a time delay,” said Cheung. “[The water] first has to go into your stomach and then it has to empty from your stomach and absorb through your intestine.”

That, Cheung said, could take 20 minutes.

According to Health Canada symptoms of heat stroke include hallucinations and loss of consciousness — two signs that Dancevic clearly exhibited before returning to his match. Health Canada says that heat stroke is a medical emergency and that a person with symptoms should go to the hospital.

The international tournament generates huge tourism dollars for Australia, though many argue it’s not worth the health risk to athletes when it gets this hot.

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“Part of the spectacle of sport is that you have athletes going to the extreme, but we’re not at the gladiator stage of wanting athletes to suffer,” said Cheung.

The heat is also affecting attendance: Tuesday’s session received 35,571 visitors, 12,000 fewer than on Monday.

The good news is that there is only one day left of this extreme heat. By Saturday, the high in Melbourne is forecast to be a more manageable 23 C.

The Open runs until Jan. 26.

–with files from The Associated Press

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