Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Independence Day

Happy July 4! As we celebrate Independence Day, we should be grateful for our freedoms, families, friends, and wonderful country. We are especially indebted to all who serve and have served America, be it military, education, environment, health care, or any other public service. Few of us would be able to enjoy much of our lives in the U.S. without the continual selfless devotion of others. When you watch the fireworks (from a safe distance) this year, think hard about what you might do in the coming year to make our nation healthier, safer, stronger, cleaner, and more wise.

The 4th of July holiday is usually a wonderful time to be outdoors. In the hope that you will all have a wonderful weekend and enjoy the scenery, here are a few tips for injury prevention that will help you have fun safely, and not need to visit me or any other emergency physician:

1. Be extremely careful with fireworks. Firecrackers, bottle rockets, sparklers, and the like are always the cause of unfortunate accidents on the 4th of July. Do not leave children unattended with fireworks - that would be a recipe for disaster. Wear eye protection around fireworks. Eye injuries from extremely hot-burning and explosive fireworks are common, particularly in children, and they can be devastating, including loss of vision. Obey the law. Whether or not it is legal to use fireworks in your location, do not make the mistake of igniting a wildland fire.

2. Supervise all young children when they are swimming, even in the backyard or hotel swimming pool. Never take it for granted that someone else will safeguard your child, particularly if a swimming pool is crowded. For teenagers and older, remember that alcohol and water sports do not mix. Finally, ignore the misguided folklore that informs people never to swim after eating. The truth is that swimming is exertion, and swimmers need fuel. A small amount of carbohydrate and a beverage are important to maintain energy, and are advised before strenuous or prolonged aquatic exercise.

3. Stay well hydrated, particularly in the heat. If you are hiking, climbing, running a road race, cycling, or doing anything else that causes you to sweat, breathe rapidly (particularly at altitude), or be outdoors in hot weather, take extra care to drink plenty of fluids. There are many recommendations floating around regarding how much of ingested fluid should be plain water, or supplemented (usually with electrolytes and carbohydrate) water, but the bottom line is that you should keep up with what you perspire, respire, excrete, and sweat.

4. Wear your bicycle, motorcycle, climbing, whitewater or other helmet. There are more people on the roads (so more collisions), people are on holiday, alcohol is consumed, and the river rocks and rockfall from cliffs are unforgiving. Many a head is bonked (hard) on the 4th of July. To put it simply, the people who wear helmets often live unimpaired, while those who are not wearing helmets suffer brain injuries and die or become disabled. If you should be wearing a helmet, forgo the freedom to suffer and be smart.

5. Leave no trace. Whether you are camping, boating, or hiking, pack out your garbage and dispose of it properly. Know how to build a proper latrine at a safe distance from your campsite or natural water sources, pick up paper, cans, and other refuse, and try to leave the wilderness the way you found it. Besides the obvious benefit to the environment and scenery, you are practicing good public health, by not contaminating the soil and groundwater, and thereby doing your part to control the spread of infectious diseases. Because everyone will not be as thoughtful as you, take care to wash your hands carefully, and consider using a disinfectant gel or lotion, before you eat or handle food.

sparkler image courtesy of
drowning image courtesy of
fly on flower image courtesy of
campsite trash image courtesy of

Preview the 25th Anniversary & Annual Meeting of the Wilderness Medical Society, which will be held in Snowmass, Colorado July 25-30, 2008.

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About the Author

Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.