4 summer safety hazards — and how to avoid them

Getting outdoors is a great way to stay active while social distancing. Here's how to reduce the risk of rashes, bug bites and more.
Mother and child enjoying camping by the sea
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By Linda Carroll

With temperatures rising and and social distancing still in full effect, everyone’s gearing up for safe, but fun summer activities like hiking, picnicking and barbecuing.

If you aren't sick or haven't been exposed to COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says that getting outdoors is a great way to stay active, relieve stress and connect with others. Here are the CDC's recommendations to enjoy the outdoors safely:

  • Don't go to overcrowded parks and recreational facilities.
  • Visit parks that are close to home.
  • Maintain social distancing and stay six feet apart from others.
  • Avoid gathering with people outside your household.
  • Don't participate in organized sports and activities.

Once you've found a safe spot to roam, Dr. Roshini Rajapaksa, a gastroenterologist at NYU Langone in New York City, shared some tips with TODAY to help you avoid some of the season’s more common health hazards.

4 summer safety tips to keep in mind

1. Learn to spot plants and trees like poison ivy and poison oak

If you’re going to be outside hiking and picnicking in areas that haven’t been cleared of plants like poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac, Rajapaksa suggests becoming familiar with the appearance of these pesky plants.

“It’s really important to recognize these plants,” said Rajapaksa. “They all have urushiol, which is a type of oil that can cause a terrible rash.”

It’s contact with the oil that causes the small red itchy bumps on your skin, Rajapaksa said. What many people don’t know is that the oil, which can stick to your skin and clothes, can be very long-lived.

“When that oil sticks to your clothes it can last for years,” Rajapaksa said. “You might have a sneaker, for example, that you put away in the closet and when you bring it out in the winter you can get that rash again. So you want to make sure if you’ve come in contact with any of these plants that you really wash your clothes carefully.”

And it’s not just your clothes that you have to worry about. Pets can run through patches of the plants and pick up the oils on their coats. While the animals don’t react, you can develop a rash just by touching them.

“So you want to wash your pets if your pets are running around in them,” Rajapaksa said of the plants.

If you’ve got any of these plants growing around your house, it’s best to get rid of them, though you need to do so carefully. Make sure you’re wearing gloves to protect your hands and don’t ever try to dispose of them by burning. If you breathe in smoke contaminated with the oil it can really irritate your lungs, she said.

If you do come in contact with urushiol and a rash develops, Rajapaksa suggests putting Calamine lotion or hydrocortisone cream directly on the skin. Taking oral Benadryl can also quiet the itching, she said.

As it turns out, you can get an itchy rash without even touching a plant.

2. Watch out for heat rash

With the extremely hot temperatures of summer, you can develop heat rash.

“Heat rash is not just for babies,” Rajapaksa said. “It’s what happens when your pores get clogged so you can’t perspire and release the heat. That can cause tiny little bumps that can be itchy.”

The best way to avoid heat rash is to make sure you’re wearing clothing that wicks away moisture. Most important is underwear, Rajapaksa said, “because you get it in those very moist and warm areas.”

Just as with poison ivy, the best topical treatment is hydrocortisone ointment. But keep in mind, Rajapaksa said, that the rash could be a sign that you are overheated and at risk for heat stroke. So, “get in a cool area because heat stroke is very serious.”

3. Another summer hazard: bug bites

One of the most potentially dangerous bites comes from the deer tick, Rajapaksa said. The tick, which is the size of a pinhead, can transmit bacteria that can lead to Lyme disease.

Rajapaksa suggests checking yourself and your children every evening for ticks.

“The tick has to be on your skin for two to three days it can actually transmit the disease,” she said. “So you can prevent it if you can find that tick.”

Even with careful inspections, it’s possible to miss the ticks. A sure sign that you’ve been bitten and infected is a bull’s eye rash, Rajapaksa said. If you see the rash, you need to go to a doctor and get antibiotics, because “untreated it can lead to severe neurological issues.”

4. Keep these food safety rules in mind

Another big area for concern is food safety. While grilling and picnicking can be a lot of fun, you need to be careful with your food, Rajapaksa said.

Raw meat should be kept away from other foods on a separate platter, and handled with different utensils. And when you grill, use a thermometer to check that the meat is done because “you can’t judge it from the outside," Rajapaksa said. "Even if it’s charred on the outside, it could be raw on the inside.”

Perishables, like macaroni and potato salads, need to be kept cold. “You don’t want anything out for more than two hours,” Rajapaksa said. “Or only one hour if it’s over 90 degrees.”

She suggests keeping drinks in a separate cooler “because that is the one that people are going to be opening all the time.”

As for leftovers — you don’t really want to keep anything that’s been outside the cooler, Rajapaksa said. “If it’s been in the cooler the whole time then you may be able to use it, but if not, then just throw it away.”