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Medical expert offers 11 outdoor safety tips to shield against summer hazards


Cranking summer fun up to 11 first requires sensible safeguards against summer hazards. Dr. Stephanie Lareau, an assistant professor of emergency medicine at the Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine, shared 11 safety tips for keeping summer plans fun and safe.

1. Prevent heatstroke.

In this year of record-breaking high temperatures, it’s important to guard against heatstroke, the most serious medical problem related to summer heat. The hallmark of heatstroke is an altered mental state, such as confusion or inability to walk. This is a potentially life-threatening medical emergency, so you should call 911 and work on cooling the person down. Simple things such as getting them out of direct sun, spraying them with cool water, and immersing them in water (if they are awake and able to help) can help while you are awaiting more aid. 

2. Stay hydrated while doing outdoor chores.

If you’re working outdoors under the summer sun, it’s important to stay well hydrated. Make sure you have water available and are drinking it at regular intervals. A good rule of thumb is to make sure your urine looks light yellow to clear. Take frequent breaks and get out of the sun. If possible, try to get your work done during early morning or late evening when the temperatures are lower. Use the weather forecast to pick days with not only lower temperatures but lower heat indexes, which take into account both temperature and humidity. When humidity is high, sweating is less effective, making it harder for your body to regulate temperature.  

3. Exercise early to avoid midday heat.

With workouts, just as with work, get outside early to avoid midday heat. Wear light-colored, breathable clothing and be sure to drink plenty of fluids. Exercise tolerance can decrease when it’s hot, so plan accordingly. Slowly increase exercise to help your body become acclimatized to increasing temperatures. On a day with a high heat index, consider going for a swim or running on a treadmill indoors instead of running outdoors.  

4. Wear sunscreen or sun-protective clothing.

During the summer, and any time of year when there’s risk for sun exposure, wear sunscreen or sun-protective clothing such as sun shirts and hats. Not only is sunburn uncomfortable, but it can also increase your risk of skin cancer and predispose you to heat-related illnesses. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours — and more often if you’re in the water. About 1 oz., that is, about a shot glass full, is usually enough to cover the whole body. 

5. Plan ahead for longer hikes and outdoor activities.

When taking longer trips in the summer, it’s important to have adequate access to water. Remember that in hot weather, you need more water than usual. If you expect to rely on streams or creeks for your water supply, talk to those familiar with the area to make sure they aren’t dry. If you’ll be doing strenuous activities, it’s essential to bring electrolyte drinks as well to avoid exercise-induced hyponatremia, which is low sodium or salt levels that can lead to confusion and even seizures.

As with any outdoor activity, it’s also helpful to get acclimated to the heat before embarking on ambitious adventures. If you are on medications for blood pressure, heart problems, or psychiatric conditions, you should talk to your doctor about these medications and your outdoor plans. Some medications can predispose individuals to heat illness or dehydration.

Make sure that you have a plan if you get stuck in bad weather, so that you can find shelter and stay dry. The Southeast region typically sees a lot of pop-up storms over the summer.

6. Check for ticks.

It is important to check for ticks after being outdoors, especially in tall grasses or wooded areas. To remove ticks, use tweezers and grasp as closely to the tick’s head as possible. In summer months, tick-borne illnesses are common, among them Lyme disease, which can present with flu-like symptoms including muscle aches, joint pain, fevers, and a bull’s-eye rash. Alpha gal allergy is also common in the summer, a condition in which people develop allergy symptoms or even anaphylaxis after eating red meat. This comes from the lone star tick, which is identifiable by a white spot on the tick’s back.

7. Watch for algal bloom warnings.

Going swimming or boating instead of hiking or biking? Keep in mind hazardous blue-green algae blooms have been found in local recreational bodies of water, including Smith Mountain Lake. These toxic blooms can be harmful to humans and pets. Symptoms typically include rashes as well as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Wherever there are high levels of bacteria, people should not swim in or ingest the water and should keep their pets out of the water as well. If you come into contact with this water, you should shower immediately. Checking local media reports and the Virginia Department of Health website will tell you these toxins are found so you can avoid them.

8. Check water levels and waterway dangers before tubing.
When planning to tube or float a river, be sure to check water levels before you go. Websites such as show levels. If you aren’t familiar with the levels, check with a local outfitter before you go. Many rivers that are fun for tubing at low levels can be very dangerous at high levels and have new hazards. Additional danger can come from downed trees and debris in rivers after storms. Furthermore, it’s always important to know dangers in waterways like low-head dams to avoid accidents. Everyone should wear a life jacket while on moving water. Alcohol is also associated with an increased risk of drowning, even for good swimmers. Consider taking a water safety course if you enjoy recreating on rivers.  

9. Children should have life jackets, and don’t forget swimming lessons

Summers also bring increases in drownings. Make sure to have a designated person to watch children around water — and summers are a great time to get children enrolled in swimming lessons. Ensure children have appropriately fitting life jackets on lakes and rivers. If you witness someone drowning, early CPR with rescue breaths is vital for improving chances of survival while waiting for help to arrive. Consider taking a CPR class.  

10. Take a boat safety course.

If you are spending time on the lake, consider a boat safety course. Just like when operating a car, alcohol and operating a boat can lead to increased accidents. Also, watch lake monitoring information for areas where you shouldn’t swim. With heavy rains, agriculture, lawn chemicals, and animal waste from farms can contaminate water, making it unsafe for swimming.

11. Wear a helmet when cycling or riding an ATV.

Another unwanted summer trend: an uptick in trauma — especially pediatric — during the summer. Make sure everyone wears a helmet when biking, using scooters, or operating an ATV. There has been uptick in ATV accidents without helmets.

About Lareau
In addition to her work in the Carilion Clinic emergency department and teaching at Virginia Tech, Lareau is a board member of the Wilderness Medicine Society, which helps medical professionals get additional training in environmental emergencies such as hypothermia, hyperthermia, and other weather-related outdoor problems. More here.


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