Enjoying Nature Safely

August 17th, 2020

Summer is a great time to go out hiking, biking, enjoying our backyards and picnics.  However, we should be mindful that there are dangers lurking in the greenery.  It is important to acquaint yourself and your kids about these to prevent health issues which can range from annoying rashes to even death.  Here are some tips to help you stay safe.

Poison Ivy from my yard.  "Leaves Three, Let It Be!"

Poison Ivy, “Leaves Three, Let It Be!”

  • Poisonous plants – These are very common in many areas of the US.  These plants, which include poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac are covered in oils which can irritate your skin and cause rashes.  Even brushing up briefly against these leaves casually can be enough to cause a reaction.  The oils are on all parts of the plant and remain even after the leaves are dried out, so you must be careful even when clearing leaves from your yard in the fall.  If you brush up against these plants, wash the area thoroughly with soap and water.  It’s also a good idea to shower immediately after hiking and throw your clothes in the laundry.  Teach your children how to recognize poison ivy and oak with the phrase “Leaves three, let it be!” Wearing long sleeves, pants and gloves (when gardening) can reduce your exposure.  If you have extensive poison ivy growth in your backyard, you can hire specialized gardeners trained to safely remove these plants.
  • Poisonous fruits and mushrooms – While walking in the woods, you and your children may encounter fruits and mushrooms which may look like ones you find in a supermarket.  Poisonous plants and mushrooms can look very similar to the ones we use for cooking and eating.  Unless you are very experienced and knowledgeable about foraging, do not eat anything you may find.  Ingesting them can make you extremely sick or possibly cause death.   Each year, there are a number of people who die from eating a species of mushroom, nicknamed the “Death Cap”, whose poison is so potent that even one bite can be fatal.  If you are going hiking, be sure to bring some fruits and snacks so you are not tempted.
  • Do not drink from streams or ponds no matter how clean they may look.  Bacteria and parasites live in almost all freshwater streams.  One parasite called Giardia is found in almost all parts of the US can causes massive diarrhea that lasts for weeks and is very difficult to treat without strong antibiotics.  Amoebas are a bacteria that can cause a deadly brain infection if accidentally inhaled through your nostrils.  Streams may also contain harmful chemicals such as pesticides, especially if there are farms or gardens nearby.  Bring your own bottled water to stay hydrated.  There are also iodine tablets you can purchase from stores that sell hiking equipment that can make your water safer.
  • Be careful around bees and wasps.  They can cause very painful stings and, in people who are allergic, can be deadly.  Avoid disturbing beehives, and if you do see a bee or wasp nearby, stand still or move slowly away.  They will more likely sting if you swat your arms or move quickly.  Avoid wearing perfumes or colognes as the floral scents can attract these insects.  If you know you have a bee sting allergy, make sure to carry your epinephrine pen at all times and that it is not expired.
  • Ticks and mosquitos can carry a whole host of diseases ranging from Lyme disease to West Nile virus.  Be sure to use a repellant with 30% DEET when outdoors.  After you come back indoors, make sure to check all over your body for ticks that may have attached, especially in skin fold such as armpits and groin areas.  If you develop a rash anywhere on your body during the summer months, be sure to see your primary care provider or schedule a telehealth visit and have it examined as it could be a sign of Lyme disease, which can be easily treated if found early.

Summer is a great time to enjoy the great outdoors with your family.  Be sure to stay safe by being prepared and staying informed.

Just Because It’s Legal, Doesn’t Mean It’s Safe!

July 28th, 2020

Right now, several states in the Northeastern US have opened up after a difficult few months of quarantine for COVID-19.  Stores, restaurants, and bars are once again ready for patrons.  However, we must be extra vigilant at this time if we resume our activities.  While it may be legal for these places to be open, the settings may still be ripe for COVID-19 transmission.  The local governments do not have the ability to check on every establishment each day to make sure mask wearing and physical distancing is taking place.  This will certainly lead to an uptick in cases.  Sadly, it is inevitable.

Here are some pointers so you can protect yourself:

  • Trust your gut feeling.  If it feels unsafe, it probably is.  Are people not wearing masks?  Are people crowded together in large groups (unlikely to be in their “pod” or home)?
  • Do not give in to peer pressure.  As with all things in life, we shouldn’t always trust the opinions of those around us.  Many people have reasons for misguided beliefs, but don’t let those people ruin your health with one bad decision.  If you feel uncomfortable in a certain situation, leave or make an excuse.  Is it worth possibly dying or hospitalized after being in a crowded bar for two hours?  Probably not.
  • If you are around elderly people or people with chronic diseases, you need to be extra careful with your exposure.  Many studies have shown that COVID-19 can spread asymptomatically, meaning that someone with no fever or cough can transmit the disease to others.  If you accidentally or deliberately put yourself in a risky situation, you should avoid being around vulnerable people for at least 14 days.
  • Always err on the side of safety.  Wearing a mask should be second nature right now.  Keep some sort of face protection nearby at all times.  I tie a bandana around my neck often put it over my mask as a second layer, but it could be helpful as a replacement if I happened to lose my mask or the strap on the mask breaks.  If someone is walking towards you during a conversation, take a step back and let them know you don’t feel comfortable.  At this point, I think we all understand everyone has different comfort levels and we must respect that people may have underlying health issues which could put them at serious risk of complications with COVID-19. We must assume everyone we see has the potential to spread the virus.
  • Ask yourself, “Why now?  What else?”  Do you have to put yourself at risk?  Is there some other way to make the activity safer?  Is it worth it?  Could you possible order the item online rather than walking through a store for an hour?  Is it a need or a want?
  • Trust your gut feeling!  I mention this again, because it is so important right now.  Trust your intuition, and be safe!

Think about all the time you spent quarantining this year.  If you engage in risky activities for even just a few moments and get sick, you have essentially negated all of those weeks stuck in your home!


Mindful Social Media Use

July 6th, 2020

Social media has made making connections with people much easier than before, but some studies have shown that these electronic interactions can create “fear of missing out” and occupy time that could be better spent on other more fulfilling life experiences. For some people, it could also reduce productivity at work. While it is not entirely feasible to “disconnect” from our phones in this digital age, I would recommend that we try to avoid the temptation to be staring at screens all the time.

Here are some tips to learn how to “live in the moment” rather than in our electronic devices.

  • Create a dedicated “time out” from electronic devices each day. I recommend putting the phone away when you are eating, watching TV shows/movies, and at least one hour before bedtime. Distracted eating can cause you to overeat. Looking at the news and social media before bedtime can also lead to disrupted sleep. Oftentimes when we sleep, we replay events or thoughts in our mind, particularly things that occupied our minds just before falling asleep.
  • Find activities to do with your family such as hiking in the woods, board games or puzzles and set a rule that no one can look at their phones during that time.
  • Remove or hide “addictive” apps from the phone/tablet. Games and shopping are great distractions and are not all bad. They can sometimes give your mind a mini “mental coffee break” especially when you are stressed out. However, if you are finding they are taking up too much of your time, they can negatively impact your health. That twenty minutes or more playing a game could be better spent getting some fresh air outdoors or exercising.
  • Use the “snooze” or “mute” function to remove posts from people who make negative comments. We all know people who use social media to vent about political or social issues, some of these may cause you to feel stressed or anxious.
  • Talk or video chat with other people. It’s amazing how little we talk to people, even with our closest friends. We communicate in media such as texts and instant messages, but we don’t talk to real people in real time as much as we should. Rather than posting “Happy Birthday” on social media, give your friend or family member a call. They will certainly appreciate it more!
  • Practice mindful eating or any other activity. We need to experience things more completely. Try this little experiment. The next time you start to eat something, take one small bite of the food and close your eyes. Take two full minutes to eat that piece of food, allowing your taste buds and your mouth to fully sense the full texture, taste, and temperature. You would be surprised how wildly complex and exciting one bite of food can be, but we don’t often realize it because we are eating too quickly and eating with distractions. You can adapt this to any pleasant life experience.
  • Meditate. I can’t overemphasize how meditation is the best solution to counter the negative effects of information overload. I think of meditation as the “reset” button for our brains, similar to pushing and holding the power button on the smartphone when you’ve opened too many apps and it freezes up.  Meditation helps our minds to restart with a clean slate.

With the current pandemic and physical distancing, many of us are turning to social media as a distraction and replacement for social interaction. However, we need to make sure that we set limits on the time spent and set aside quality time to enjoy nature and time with our families.  Live in the moment!

The Heat Is On!

July 6th, 2020

Summer is a time to enjoy the great outdoors!  However, extreme heat can be very dangerous to your health, especially for the very young, very old, and people with chronic medical issues such as high blood pressure and diabetes.  Here are some tips to help you and your family stay safe this summer.

  • Stay hydrated!  Be sure to drink plenty of water.  By the time most of us are thirsty, we are already slightly dehydrated.  As we age, the thirst center of the brain becomes less sensitive.  Elderly people may not think they are dehydrated until it is too late.  They are also more likely to  have prostate (men) or bladder issues and may consciously try to reduce their fluid intake so they will not have to look for a bathroom when they leave the house.  They may also have mobility issues and difficulty walking to get the water they need when they are feeling thirsty.
  • How do you know you are well hydrated?  You should be urinating at least every hour and the urine should be clear, not cloudy or dark colored.  If this is not the case, your body is likely trying to hold onto water.  Start drinking water until you feel the urge to urinate.
  • Avoid alcohol as it is a diuretic, which means it actually causes your body to lose water and can hasten dehydration.  It can also mask the early symptoms of heatstroke.
  • Check the forecast.  Consider postponing any outdoor events or activities in excessive heat.
  • Keep cool, especially when the temperature is over 85 degrees Fahrenheit or the air is very humid.  Stay indoors, in an air-conditioned car or in the shade particularly between the hours of 12-3 pm when the sun is very intense.  Drinking cold, non-alcoholic beverages, or jumping into a pool or ocean can lower your body temperature down quickly.  Some people may be reluctant to turn on the air conditioner, but you should encourage them to do so particularly if they are older or have chronic medical conditions or breathing issues.  If an air conditioner is not available, you can use a fan or place towels soaked in cool water on the forehead, neck, and armpits.
  • Wear sunscreen with an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 30 or more.  Sunburns can feel very painful and greatly increase your risk for skin cancer.  Reapply if you go into the water as most sunscreens are not truly “waterproof”, even if the label says so.
  • Stay in the shade and keep you body covered.  Wear wide brimmed hats or use an umbrella if you must be outdoors for long periods of time in the sun.  Light-colored and loose-fitting clothing such as linen or cotton are ideal as they can cover up exposed skin, while allowing good airflow underneath.
  • Avoid excessive exertion when the temperature rises.  Save the arduous yard work or outdoor workouts for cloudy days or the early morning hours.  Instead, you can exercise indoors with air conditioning. People with asthma need to take extra precautions as exercising in hot, humid, pollen-filled air can trigger serious breathing problems.
  • Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.  These usually contain over 80% of water and can provide electrolytes such as potassium, which is essential to prevent muscle cramps that often come with being in the heat and dehydration.
  • Eat cool foods such as frozen juice pops, fresh salads and cold soups such as gazpacho.  Avoid heavy, greasy, hot-temperature foods as these can raise our body temperature and can make digestion more difficult. Standing near a hot grill can also raise your body temperature and make you feel uncomfortable.
  • Check in with people around you, especially the elderly and the young.  Some symptoms of health issues with heat include:  mental confusion, racing heartbeat (usually over 100 beats per minute), dizziness upon standing, feeling lethargic, shallow and rapid breathing, blurry vision, inability to urinate, nausea, fainting, and loss of appetite.  In severe cases, excessive dehydration and heat can lead to a condition called heat stroke, which is a potentially deadly and needs to be treated immediately in a hospital.  Whenever I’m at a picnic or outdoor event in the summer, I always bring extra bottles of water and hand them to any elderly people in the group.  I always remind people to “stay ahead of your thirst”.
Outdoor events are one of many enjoyable things in summertime.  Just be sure to take precautions and stay safe in the heat!

What Mask Should I Use to Protect Myself?

May 29th, 2020

Right now, we are all concerned about protecting ourselves from the dangerous COVID-19 virus.  Mask-wearing by everyone has two benefits. It protects the wearing from breathing in dangerous droplets containing the virus and catches droplets expelled from coughs or sneezes.  We are learning that many people can feel perfectly fine in the first few days of COVID-19 infection, yet they can still spread it to others.  The key point is that we all need to wear masks when we are around other people.  There are many different masks on the market.  Here is a ranking of commonly used masks from most effective to least effective.  Combinations of masks can also provide some added benefit.  I’m excluding some of the more expensive, industrial grade masks as those are not feasible to wear for most people.  Mask-wearing of any kind will always provide more protection than not having a face covering.

  1. N95 or KN95 Mask- the gold standard for protection.  However, it must fit right to be protective.  Be sure to mold the wire on top around your nosebridge.  When you put it on right, you should see a little bit of the mask “suck inward” when you breathe in. You can cover the N95 with a cloth mask to increase the protection.  I would recommend using these masks when you will be in close contact or in enclosed spaces, with people who potentially could be infected.
  2. ASTM level 2,3 surgical mask.  These are medical grade masks which provide some more protection than the average paper mask, are more comfortable than N95’s but the downside is that they allow for leakage of air around the sides.
  3. ASTM level 1 surgical mask, can improve the quality by adding an additional cloth mask on top
  4. Any surgical mask, usually have a lot of leakage on the sides, I would advise using a gaiter (see below) to close up those gaps
  5. Cloth mask doubled up with filter (coffee filter, air filter or paper towel) inserted between the layers
  6. Cloth mask- the thicker the fabric and tighter the weave the better.  If you hold the fabric up to the light, you should not be able to see too much light through it.  If the material is thin, double it up by folding it in half.
  7. Gaiter– these were originally designed for skiers but are quite comfortable and provide decent protection.  What’s nice about them is they often have ear loops to keep the mask from falling down.  They also feel a little less restrictive.  Wearing a surgical mask underneath would provide more protection.
  8. Scarf or bandana- these can be used alone or ideally with a paper mask underneath.  I would recommend these if you are in an area where you don’t plan to come into contact with other people, like when you are hiking in the woods.  You never know if you may come across someone and these can provide just enough protection.
  9. Any piece of clothing or paper towel wrapped around the face.  If you find yourself without a mask, lift up your shirt collar above your nose or place a folded paper towel around your nose and mouth.  These are not the best, but can provide some protection for short periods of time.

We should all be used to wearing face coverings at this point.  The key to staying safe is knowing what protection you need and in what situation.  Think about it like part of your wardrobe choices for the day, would you wear a T-shirt to a wedding?  Would you wear a tuxedo to a picnic? Again, some protection is better than none, but planning ahead is very important.  Put an extra mask or scarf in your pocket if you are not sure.  It could save your life!