10 Summer Hazards
Nothing beats relaxing in the summer sun, but spending time outdoors does have its risks. Here’s a look at some common—and not so common—summer perils, and what to do if you encounter them.
Sunlight can be beneficial to your health (think vitamin D!), but repeated or severe sunburns can cause both immediate and long-term health problems.
According to a 2007 Skin Cancer Foundation poll, 42 percent of people get sunburned at least once per year. Mild sunburns cause slight pain and redness, while severe burns may cause blisters or a rash and have serious repercussions. “According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence can more than double the chances of developing melanoma,” says Darrick Antell, M.D., assistant clinical professor of surgery at Columbia University in New York City and educational spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation. “It also causes aging of the skin.”
The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but your sunburn risk isn’t limited to those hours, nor are you less at risk on cloudy days. To avoid overexposure, use sun block with an SPF of at least 15. Approximately 30 minutes before sun exposure, apply the product liberally to your body, including your ears and your scalp, and make sure to reapply every few hours and after swimming—even if the sun block is waterproof, says Antell. If you are hypersensitive to the sun’s UV rays or have an open wound or a scar, apply zinc oxide for added protection.
There’s no quick fix for sunburns; they heal over time. To ease any discomfort, apply cold compresses or aloe, and take an anti-inflammatory pain reliever. See a doctor if your skin blisters or you are experiencing high fever, extreme pain, headache, confusion, nausea, or chills.
One of the joys of summer is going barefoot. One of its bummers: picking up a splinter or stepping on a sharp object, like a nail.
Puncture wounds, common summer injuries, don’t normally cause excessive bleeding and typically heal quickly. If you get a splinter, remove it by gently pinching the surrounding skin and using sterilized tweezers (boiled for at least five minutes or soaked in rubbing alcohol) to slowly pull it out at the same angle it entered the skin. Cleanse the area with peroxide, cover with an antiseptic, such as Neosporin, and then bandage the wound to prevent infection.
If the object is embedded in your skin or is in a sensitive area such as your eye, or if it’s unusually large or contaminated by rust, do not attempt to remove it yourself; instead, seek medical attention. If you haven’t had a tetanus vaccine in more than five years, your doctor may recommend getting a booster within 48 hours. Be sure to monitor your wound as it heals—additional medical care may be necessary if you develop redness, an enlarged point of entry, or linear streaking.
Another potential downside to going barefoot (who knew there were so many?): It can possibly lead to a dermatological condition called creeping eruption. This itchy and unattractive threadlike rash, caused by a parasite, spreads to humans through skin contact with hookworm-infected animal feces on the ground. Creeping eruption is more common in warmer climates where the parasite is more prevalent, says Franz Ritucci, M.D., physician and director of the American Academy of Urgent Care Medicine in Orlando. It also affects more children than adults, since kids tend to go barefoot in areas adults might sidestep.
Once bacteria seep under the skin, symptoms usually appear immediately, with some reddish discoloration and varying intensity of itching. “Seek immediate medical assistance [to get] antibiotics,” says Ritucci. “It’s not very difficult to treat, but it can spread very fast.”
Though people think of poison ivy—that scourge of gardeners and campers—as a summertime menace, you can be exposed to the three-leaved plant at any time of year wherever it grows.
The best way to prevent the irritating red rash that results when the skin comes in contact with the oils of the plant: Know how to identify and avoid it. Teach kids the mnemonic “Leaves of three, let them be,” and follow that advice yourself. If you know you will be in a spot that is likely to have poison ivy—which is more usual in rural areas and thrives in warmer climates—wear long, heavy clothing and closed-toe shoes (yes, even in the summer) to protect your skin from the plant’s oils. Remember that the oils can also linger on clothing—and pets, tools, and other objects—causing indirect contact that may lead to a rash, says Larry Millikan, a dermatologist based in New Orleans. Clothing that may be contaminated should be washed thoroughly, and pets should be shampooed immediately. Use rubbing alcohol to clean other surfaces and objects.
If you do develop a rash, it should subside in two to four weeks. In the meantime, relieve discomfort caused by itching and swelling by rinsing the area with soapy water and using over-the-counter products like calamine lotion and Benadryl or another antihistamine. If blisters develop or the discomfort of the rash is interfering with your day-to-day activities, your dermatologist can give you cortisone cream or injections and prescribe medication.
No one likes a party crasher, and yet picnics and barbecues seem to attract their fair share—at least of the winged variety. These scavengers—wasps, bees, yellow jackets, and hornets—often hover near food and sweet-scented drinks (not to mention perfumed guests and those wearing brightly colored clothing). Stinging insects may hang out around your garbage cans, too, and build nests in trees, bushes, under the eaves of buildings, and sometimes on the ground (so it’s wise to keep your shoes on). Be cautious about disturbing a nest: You run the risk of riling the entire colony. Removing it could be a job for professionals.
For most of us, stinging insects are just an annoyance. Should one land on you, don’t panic, and don’t swat at it. Hold still and gently blow on the insect to encourage it to fly away. If you do get stung, you’ll probably experience localized discomfort and swelling, says Clifford Bassett, M.D., an allergist in New York City. Washing the area with cold water, taking an antihistamine, and using a cold compress will help ease pain and reduce swelling. Applying a paste of three parts baking soda to one part water for 15 to 20 minutes may also provide relief.
Of course, for the 3 to 4 percent of Americans who are allergic to stinging insects, a sting can have grave consequences. They may experience increased warmth, facial swelling, nasal and throat problems, difficulty breathing, and even shock. Severe reactions may require the immediate administration of an EpiPen and emergency medical attention.
Jellyfish aren’t aggressive and don’t attack humans, but accidental contact with their tentacles can cause mild to severe reactions, depending on the type of jellyfish.
If you are stung by a jellyfish, forget the old wives’ tale about urinating on the sting—it won’t help and may actually make the pain worse, says Jay Bradley, curator of the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C. Instead, immediately flush the area with seawater (don’t use fresh water—it might exacerbate the pain) to wash away the toxins that caused the sting. (Vinegar works too, though your chances of having it at the beach are probably slim.) Once home, submerge the affected area in hot water for up to 90 minutes in order to neutralize any stinging tentacles that may be lingering. Tentacles that are still attached can be removed carefully with tweezers.
To prevent a jellyfish sting, leave beached jellyfish alone; if you know you’ll be sharing waters with jellyfish, wear protective swimwear, such as a wet suit or a rash guard. In the United States, most jellyfish are not very dangerous and their stings cause only mild discomfort. But reactions to stings can be more severe if you are allergic; if you are experiencing swelling, welts, or respiratory distress, seek immediate medical attention.
The lethal heat wave that’s plagued the U.S. this summer serves as a reminder that staying cool as the temperature climbs is serious business. Excessive heat may cause a rapid pulse and excessive sweating—a result of your body overheating and experiencing heat exhaustion—especially in people who are working or exercising outside. Without proper hydration, heat exhaustion can escalate to heat stroke, a life-threatening condition that kills approximately 400 Americans every year.
Heat stroke occurs when the body’s internal temperature exceeds 104 degrees and is unable to cool down because the body loses its ability to sweat, says Ritucci. “The key to avoiding or preventing this condition is hydration,” he explains. “Drink plain water to replace any fluids you have lost.” On a hot day, reserve early mornings and evenings for strenuous activities such as exercising. Seeking out shade whenever possible, avoiding being outdoors at the hours of peak heat (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and wearing loose clothing can also help prevent overheating.
Redness, dizziness, nausea, fever, headache, dry skin, and rapid pulse may indicate heat stroke and 911 should be called immediately. If you’re experiencing symptoms and are capable of doing so, put cool, damp cloths on your groin, neck, back and armpits—the places where heat is most concentrated—and lie down while awaiting medical assistance.
Though you might put your odds of being struck by lightning at about a million to one, Stephanie Abrams, on-camera meteorologist for the Weather Channel, says everyone has a “1-in-300,000 chance of being struck by lightning in approximately one year.” In fact, lightning is the nation’s deadliest weather phenomenon. The varying degrees of injury a lightning-strike victim might experience include burns, memory loss, personality changes, headaches, nausea, sleep disorders, ringing in the ears, paralysis, and even death.
If you’re outdoors and hear thunder, lightning is sure to follow. Seek refuge indoors or in a hard-topped car immediately: Lightning can be a threat to your safety from as much as six miles away (30 seconds from flash to bang). Don‘t think that wearing rubber-soled shoes will offer you extra protection. If you are stuck outdoors with absolutely no shelter in sight, minimalizing yourself and your point of contact with the ground may improve your odds slightly, says Abrams: “Squat down to be at the lowest point and balance on the balls of your feet to have as little connecting you to the ground.”
Note that even indoors, there are dangers of a lightning strike. Because the electrical current can travel through pipes and wires, avoid showering during a storm or coming in contact with plugged-in devices like computers or phones, Abrams advises. It’s safe to head back outdoors and resume normal activities approximately 30 minutes after the last rumble of thunder.
To aid a lightning-strike victim, call 911 immediately to seek medical evaluation and treatment. There is no danger in touching someone who has been struck, so it’s safe to administer CPR if the victim has no heartbeat or isn’t breathing.
Despite this summer’s news accounts of bear attacks, such occurrences are rare: Most bears are wary of humans. According to Yellowstone National Park bear expert Kerry Gunther, the odds of a negative encounter with a bear are very low—only about one in 3 million visitors to Yellowstone each year. But the animals can be dangerous if you surprise them.
Always take precautions to avoid a run-in: Stay on marked trails in groups of three or more and make ample noise by talking loudly, playing a radio, or tying a bell to your pack or clothes. Bring along bear spray, too; the potent pepper spray is designed to deter bears. When camping in bear territory, Gunther says, store all food in bear-proof containers hung at least 10 feet off the ground and at least 100 feet from your campsite. Do all of your cooking in the same location.
If you do find yourself within about 25 feet of a bear, deploy a cloud of bear spray toward its face, “back away slowly and, if the bear charges, stand your ground because most of the time they will back off,” says Gunther. “If a bear makes contact, drop to the ground and play dead.” Guidelines from Yellowstone National Park suggest fighting back only if a predatory bear attacks with a silent approach and erect ears. Never make direct eye contact, scream, or run away.
If recent headlines have you thinking it’s not safe to go in the water, there’s some good news: The chances of being attacked by a shark are just 1-in-11.5 million, according to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File. “It’s usually a case of mistaken identity,” says Bradley. “The shark sees something that might look like the food they normally eat and will bite the arms or legs once or twice and then go on their way.”
Great white, tiger, and bull sharks—all found in U.S. waters—have been involved in the most unprovoked attacks on humans, likely because they are large sharks feeding on large prey that may more closely resemble humans, explains Bradley. Most U.S. shark attacks occur on the East Coast, predominately in Florida. “This has a lot to do with the distribution of sharks and the number of people in the water,” says Bradley. “There are more than 20 million people who visit beaches in Florida per year and only about 20 attacks per year, so your risk is still pretty low.”
But as miniscule as your chances are, it’s still best to stay alert in waters that sharks have been known to frequent. Skip swimming at dawn or dusk, which offer a bad confluence of diminished light and feeding times, says Bradley. And leave flashy jewelry ashore: It may also attract sharks, as it can mimic the sheen of fish scales.
If you do spot a shark, keep an eye on the animal and leave the water immediately. If the shark approaches or attacks you, try to punch or kick its face because that is the most sensitive area, says Bradley.