6 Summer Health Hazards: How to Protect Yourself

From sunburns to lightning strikes, a few simple tips can keep you safe.

ByKim Carollo and Jane E. Allen, Abc News Medical Unit
June 30, 2010, 11:12 AM

June 30, 2010— -- Now that it's summer, many more people are spending time outdoors having fun, relaxing in the sun or working.

Some, however, end up in hospital emergency rooms or at their doctor's office because of an illness or injury related to this time of year.

There are many summertime health hazards, and they seem to be present no matter what kind of activity people engage in.

Whether it's the heat, the sun, the water or fireworks, these are six of the biggest summertime health risks that take can take the fun out of summer vacation.

What Are the Dangers?

The U.S Consumer Product Safety Commission found fireworks were involved in more than 9,200 injuries treated in emergency rooms in 2006, and in a one-month period around July 4, there were more than 5,000 injuries. More than half the injuries were burns; but contusions, lacerations and objects in the eye also were reported.

If not handled properly, fireworks can cause blindness, third -degree burns and permanent scarring. In addition, misuse is also associated with potentially fatal residential and motor vehicle fires.

"We see fireworks injuries every year around the fourth of July," said Dr. Mark Moseley, medical director of the Emergency Department at The Ohio State University Medical Center. "Somehow, the message about the dangers of fireworks isn't getting out."

Who's Going to Get Hurt?

The CPSC's report highlights the risks fireworks pose to children and young adults – people younger than 20 suffered 47 percent of all injuries from fireworks, and sparklers accounted for one-third of injuries to children less than five years of age.

"Kids are curious and will want to play with them," said Moseley. "They will try and mimic the way they see adults using them, but they are uncoordinated and clumsy, so they can't handle them safely."

Because of dangers, The American Academy of Pediatrics is calling for a ban on backyard fireworks.

"There is no safe way to use them," said Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio.

"If you want to see fireworks, go to a public display put on by professionals," he added.

However, the American Pyrotechnics Association says that just like any outdoor activity, fireworks pose a risk of injury if they're not used properly.

"Fireworks are part of the Independence Day celebration," said Julie L. Heckman, executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association. "If you use them safely and responsibly, you'll have a safe holiday."

What Should I Do?

What Are the Dangers?

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly 3,500 deaths from exposure to extreme heat were reported from 1999 to 2003 – an average of about 700 deaths per year.

Heat exhaustion is one of the milder forms of heat-related illness and often the first sign that the heat is starting to take its toll. The signs of heat exhaustion include fatigue, nausea and dizziness.

As exposure to the heat increases, the risks can become life-threatening.

"You can become dehydrated, and you can develop kidney damage from dehydration as well as brain damage from the heat, which can lead to confusion," said Dr. Shkelzen Hoxhaj, chief of emergency medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.

Who's Going to Get Hurt?

"We tend to see two different types of heat-related illness. The more common one is seen in people who heavily exert themselves and get heat stroke," said Moseley.

The other type befalls elderly people with chronic medical conditions or are on certain medications that alter the way their bodies respond to the heat.

"If they're on diuretics, for example, they don't have as much fluid in their system so fluid can't get to their skin to evaporate the heat," said Dr. Charlene Babcock Irvin, assistant chief and research director in the Department of Emergency Medicine at St. John Hospital and Medical Center.

"Also, some older people have mild dementia, so they may not even realize they're getting into trouble," she added.

Infants are also at higher risk for heat-related illnesses.

"Their body's surface area is smaller, so they can't evaporate heat as well," said Irvin.

Medical experts are also vexed by the surprisingly high number of infants who die or become very ill because they're left in hot cars.

"People don't realize how fast it can happen," said Irvin. "If a car is in the sun, it can heat up in only two or three minutes, and crying makes infants more likely to get hot."

What Should You Do?

What Are the Dangers?

According to the National Weather Service, lightning strikes about 25 million times a year in the U.S. Over the past three decades, lightning has killed, on average, 58 people per year -- higher than the average 57 deaths per year caused by tornadoes and average 48 deaths due to hurricanes.

And while documented lightning injuries in the United States average about 300 per year, the fact that many are never recorded make it likely that the true total is much higher.

Who's Going to Get Hurt?

Most lightning deaths and injuries occur in the summer, and the vast majority happen to people who are working or playing outdoors in the afternoons.

"Golfers tend to be very susceptible to lightning strikes. They're outside and they want to finish their round of golf," said Moseley.

"They're also carrying metal objects and golf courses are pretty open," said Hoxhaj.

Irvin added that many lightning injuries are trauma-related.

"People may be standing on something and fall, or they may get thrown," she said.

What Should You Do?

One of the most important things you can do to prevent being struck by lightning is to pay attention to the weather.

"A lot of times there are warnings about lightning, so you should take heed of them," said Irvin. "You need to get inside."

But if you are outside and far away from shelter when a lightning strike occurs, crouch down and get as close to the ground as possible.

Even if you are inside, lightning can still strike. Stay away from water, doors and windows. You should also avoid the phone and listening to music with a headset.

"Folks also shouldn't be swimming when there's lightning or during storms," said Hoxhaj. "You can get injured if lightning strikes a pool, for example."

And if you happen upon a victim of a lightning strike, call 9-1-1 and perform CPR if the person is unresponsive or not breathing. Contrary to popular belief, victims are not electrically charged and are safe to touch.

What Are the Dangers?Picnics and barbecues are very popular during the summer, but they can also harbor tiny dangers in the form of bacteria or parasites that can cause food poisoning.

Heat, humidity and outdoor conditions that are often unsanitary cause intestinal bugs to flourish, so doctors say they see more cases of food poisoning during the summer than during other times of the year.

Who's Going to Get Hurt?

Anyone who consumes food that's been sitting out in the heat for a long time is at risk for food poisoning.

"Even if the food is covered and it's in the shade, it's still hot outside," said Irvin.

And children's innate curiosity can put them at risk for a different kind of food poisoning.

"Kids get into things like berries and things in the yard like flowers and may eat them, and they can be poisonous," said Moseley.

What Should You Do?

There are very simple things you can do to keep your food safe from contamination during the summer months.

"You can abide by the old rule, 'If in doubt, throw it out,'" said Irvin. "I also follow the two-hour rule. If the food's been out for two hours, get rid of it. Don't take chances."

She has a couple of other "common sense" rules as well.

"Use 'one-time' spoons. Don't let people lick the spoon and put it back," she said.

"Also, when people are done eating and it's been out for about 30 minutes, put it in a cooler," she added.

And for those who enjoy the taste of grilled burgers and chicken, make sure the meats are cooked thoroughly. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ground beef and pork should be cooked to a minimum internal temperature of 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and chicken should be cooked to at least 165 degrees.

What Are the Dangers?Swimming pools are symbols of summertime fun and relaxation, but they can also be hazardous.

CDC statistics show that drowning is the leading cause of injury death among children ages 1 to 4, and three children die from drowning every day.

"Drowning is quick, it's silent and it's final. You don't get a second chance," said Smith.

While drowning is by far the most serious risk posed by pools, they pose other dangers as well.

"Most injuries are minor – scrapes, cuts, bruising, orthopedic injuries," said Hoxhaj.

Who's Going to Get Hurt?

Although children are most susceptible to pool injuries, all swimmers are at risk.

In addition to minor cuts, scrapes and bruises, falls can cause very serious and potentially life-threatening problems.

"There are very traumatic injuries, like injuries to the neck and head," said Moseley. "Diving into water that's too shallow can cause very serious head and neck injuries as well," he added.

People who mix alcohol with swimming and other water activities are also at higher risk for injuries.

"Teenagers are very vulnerable, because they often mix alcohol with swimming, especially among college-age kids," said Moseley.

"Alcohol use dulls the senses and allows you to get injured more easily because your judgment is more impaired," said Hoxhaj.

What Should You Do?

One of the best things you can do to prevent pool-related injuries is to avoid alcohol if you're going to be swimming in a pool or any other body of water, and especially if you plan to go boating or use other recreational water vehicles.

"People don't realize they've had too much to drink and they get out on a boat or a jet ski. They're still impaired, and it's extremely dangerous at night," said Irvin.

What Are the Dangers?

The bright, warm sunshine is one of summer's biggest draws. People flock to beaches and other outdoor areas to catch some rays and enjoy the warm glow.

The pursuit of sunlight, though, can be hazardous to your health.

"If you get two severe burns with blistering, that puts you at risk for melanoma later," said Irvin.

"There's an epidemic of malignant melanoma in the older years due to sun exposure in the early years," Smith added.

Who's Going to Get Hurt?

"If you're fair-skinned, don't stay outside on the beach without sunscreen," said Moseley.

Children are also particularly susceptible, in part because of the amount of time they spend outdoors.

What Should You Do?

To protect yourself and your children from sunburns, experts recommend using what they call common sense. "Don't use sunblock on a child who is six months old or younger," said Irvin. "The reason is because they shouldn't be in the sun at all."

"If older children do get sunburned, cool them with a cloth and apply moisturizing creams, but don't use petroleum-based products, because they can prevent evaporation of heat," Irvin added.

"Wear a hat and use sunscreen of 30 spf or above," said Smith. "Apply it before going out and after sweating a lot or getting out of the water."

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