Between BBQs, family beach vacations and hiking trips, there's no better time of year than summer to enjoy the outdoors.
Whether you're doing a hard workout like mountain biking or something less strenuous like gardening, any amount of time spent outside strengthens your connection between yourself and Mother Nature, which can do wonders for your physical and psychological health. In fact, studies show "green exercise" can lower blood pressure, stress hormones and free your mind from stress.
Yet all that time spent outside can expose you to some hazards that could put the kibosh on your summertime fun. Here, find out what the most common ones are and what you can do to avoid them.
1. Sunburn According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 74,000 new cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, will be diagnosed this year alone. And about 10,000 people will die from it.
Even if you've never had a blistering sunburn but you like being tan, I've got news for you: tanned skin is not healthy skin. The best way to prevent sun damage and skin cancer is to use sunscreen every day without fail. Look for sunscreens that are "broad spectrum UVA/UVB," and have an SPF 30 or more. Use a shot glass's worth all over your exposed skin at least 30 minutes before heading out. Also, use UV blocking sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and sun-protective clothing.
2. Dehydration and heat stroke. You already know that if you're thirsty you're dehydrated, but feeling fatigued, dizzy or lightheaded are also telltale signs. Let it get worse and you could get heat stroke, which could be deadly. Symptoms of heat stroke include:
Muscle or abdominal cramps
High body temperature
Dark colored urine or an inability to sweat
Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
Drink a liter of water every hour if you'll be in the heat and especially if you're exercising. Also, avoid alcohol and caffeine, be sure to eat regularly, and seek shade when you can. 3. Bugs, bees, snakes - oh my! Most bug bites are benign but some can really wreak havoc on your health. To prevent becoming infected with West Nile virus, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, or Lyme Disease, use an insect repellent that contains DEET. Oil of lemon eucalyptus is an effective natural alternative to DEET. Wear clothing that covers most of your skin and tuck your socks into your pants, if possible. Repellent treated clothes are also available.
For bees, wasps, asp caterpillars, and snakes, a good rule of thumb is stay away. Although it's extremely rare to be bitten by a venomous snake — less than 37,500 people are — call 911 immediately to get treatment.
4. Lightning The risk of getting struck by lightening is extremely rare but the first strike could kill you. So at the first sign of storm clouds, leave the area immediately and seek shelter. If you're in a remote area, move away from the cliffs into a low-lying area with trees.
5. Gardening Growing your own vegetables is one of the healthiest things you can do, and even though it's relaxing you could do some serious damage to your back and knees.
Always squat when you have to pick something up, never bend at the waist, and switch sides regularly so you don't overuse your muscles. Use long-handed tools to minimize strain, and wear a hat, gloves, sturdy shoes and, of course, plenty of sunscreen.
6. Driving There's nothing better than long road trips with the top down and the wind in your hair. Summer is a high traffic season, especially Saturdays, when most crashes occur, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. So always wear your seatbelt, keep your eyes on the road and off your cell phone, drive defensively, and never drink and drive.
Although there'll always be risks while you're enjoying the great outdoors, sitting around inside is far riskier for your health. So know the risks, get prepared, head out now, and enjoy!
By J. Dan Morris, M.D.
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