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.