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When you think of outdoor exercise, what comes to mind? Likely you see yourself reveling in the sunlight, hiking the trails, enjoying the freedom of shorts and tees, and spending some intimate time with Mother Nature. But if telenovelas have taught us anything, with intimacy comes peril, and the onset of warm weather also rouses some dangerous creeps in both plant and animal form: ticks, bees/wasps and poison ivy/oak.
Don’t let these hot-weather hazards chase you back inside. Here’s the 411 on what they are, what they do and how to deal with their nastiness so you can face the fields and forest with impunity.
Ticks live in woody or grassy areas and spend their time hanging around until something warmblooded passes by, at which time they jump aboard. They stroll across your person until they find an area of exposed flesh and then get to work embedding their head under your skin to tap into your blood supply.
This in and of itself is nasty, and the sooner you get that sucker off you (pun intended) the better. Because No. 1 — ew. And No. 2 — Lyme disease is a notorious bacterial infection that can manifest in both people and animals. “The Northeast and Midwest U.S. are hot spots for Lyme disease,” says Ying Zhang, M.D., Ph.D., professor of microbiology and immunology at Johns Hopkins. Not all ticks carry Lyme, though, and if you find a larger, hard-shelled species on your body, you’re probably safe. But deer ticks — such as the blacklegged types — are the most likely infected species. Unfortunately, they are also among the smallest — about the size of a poppy seed — and can often go undetected for days.
A tick infected with Lyme has to be attached to your body for 36 to 48 hours in order to transmit the bacteria, after which the victim may develop a distinct “bull’s-eye” rash. But then again, they may not: Some people get a rash without a bull’s-eye pattern, and others don’t get a rash at all. Bottom line: If you discover a deer tick embedded in you after you’ve been hiking, get a blood test because here’s the thing: It’s nearly impossible to tell whether you have Lyme otherwise, especially if you never noticed a tick bite to begin with. The symptoms vary wildly between individuals and can mimic those of common issues or illnesses such the flu, a cold, fatigue or arthritis. Even the International Lyme and Associated Diseases Society vaguely (and noncommittally) defines chronic Lyme disease as “a multi-system illness with a wide range of symptoms and signs that are continuously or intermittently present for a minimum of six months.”
If left untreated, Lyme can become chronic and may develop into unbearable fatigue, overall physical pain and even debilitating neurologic disorders. You also can develop odd side effects such an allergy to meat or a malaria-like illness, which can be deadly. So yes, get tested. The few minutes it takes to get tested could save you years of agony.
The best line of defense against tick bites is to minimize your skin exposure. Wear long-sleeved shirts, tuck long pants into tall socks or boots, and apply bug spray from head to toe. After outdoor exercise, strip down and check your entire body for ticks, and if you can, have a friend or partner check the back of your neck, head and shoulders. Also, inspect your clothing, even if it has been washed. (Ticks can weather a wash cycle.) If you find an unattached tick, you can crush it, flush it or throw it back outside. If you find a tick embedded on your person, try not to freak out and take care with removing it. “Remove embedded ticks by grasping them close to the skin with a pair of needle-nosed tweezers and pulling gently,” says Tod Schimelpfenig, FAWM, curriculum director for NOLS Wilderness Medicine. “Wash the bite site and monitor for signs of infection.”
If you’ve been bitten by a deer tick, get a blood test for Lyme, and if that test comes back positive, know that all is not lost: A 10- to 14-day course of antibiotics can eradicate the bacteria if caught early on.
You can remove a tick by…
A: Slathering it with Vaseline to suffocate it
B: Burning its butt with a match so it backs out
C: Contracting the closest muscle to quickly fill it with blood so it explodes
Answer: Trick question! Despite common camp counselor folklore, none of these will work to remove a tick.
Poison Oak/Poison Ivy
Leaves of three, let it be.
If you spent any time at summer camp as a kid, this edict was probably drilled into your brain — with good reason. Poison ivy and poison oak vines both have three leaves to a stem, and while their foliage is shaped a little differently, the result is the same: crazy itching.
When you come into contact with poison ivy/oak leaves, an oily substance called urushiol sticks to your skin and can develop into a rash with little red blisters within four hours. This rash may persist for several weeks — longer if you can’t stop scratching it, which can pop the blisters and cause it to spread.
Though the leaves of both poison ivy and poison oak die during winter months in states with colder climes, their caustic oil knows no season, and plants that are dead and dried out can still deliver a rash if you’re susceptible — and certain people are not. Because whether or not you react to poison ivy/oak depends on if you’re allergic to it, and like any allergy, some people are immune and can roll about in a patch of poison ivy without issue, while others get covered from head to toe just breezing by a plant.
Don’t Be Rash
As with ticks, minimizing skin exposure is your best defense. Stay on hiking and cycling trails and wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants. Because the oil can cling to clothing and gear long after you’ve come inside, immediately remove your workout wear and put it in the washing machine and wipe down equipment or shoes that may have been exposed. Wash hands and all exposed areas with soap and water or with a product like Tecnu, which specifically works to remove urushiol oil.
If you do develop a rash, you’re in for a few days of discomfort. Try not to scratch, and control the itching as best you can with topical hydrocortisone cream, calamine lotion or an oral antihistamine, Schimelpfenig advises.
Summertime means flowers, and flowers mean bees. And while we literally rely on bees to pollinate plants and help grow the food on which we humans subsist, they are totally pesky when it comes to strolling through the grass barefoot.
When a bee stings you, it loses its stinger in your skin and dies. The venom delivered via stinger is what causes your pain and, in some, an allergic reaction. A wasp, on the other hand, does not lose its stinger and can even sting multiple times. With both insects, a single sting delivers only a small amount of venom, but a swarm of bees or wasps in attack mode can mean severe pain and could even be deadly if you’re allergic.
Discovering whether you are allergic only happens through experience, unfortunately, unless you’ve done allergy testing with a physician. The severity of the reaction varies between individuals, with some people experiencing a small amount of swelling at the sting site, some developing hives and some having shortness of breath (anaphylaxis), the latter of which requires immediate medical attention.
As the saying goes, bees are very busy and are pretty hard to avoid as they go from flower to flower in your garden. The good news is that bees are not aggressive and will only sting if stepped on or if you persist in bothering them. Wasps, however, are very aggressive and will attack unprovoked — in fact, a swarm may actually chase you over long distances!
Since both species hang out in the grass — bees in search of clover and wasps lounging in their nests — wear shoes when out and about. If you get stung by a bee, carefully remove the stinger without squeezing it (which could inject more venom into your skin), and for both wasp and bee strings, use ice to help ease the pain and observe the area for an allergic reaction, Schimelpfenig advises. If you know you’re allergic, always have an EpiPen on hand when outdoors, and always know the location of the nearest hospital — just in case.
Honeybees vs. Wasps
|Honeybees||Wasps (including yellow jackets and hornets)|
|Are fuzzy||Are smooth and hairless|
|Have yellow and black stripes||Can be many colors — yellow and black, black and white and even red|
|Are vegetarian pollinators||Are omnivores, eating other insects as well as plants|
|Are not aggressive; will only sting as a last resort||Are very aggressive; will attack unprovoked|
|Die after they sting||Do not die and can sting multiple times|
|Live in hives high in trees or in eaves||Live in nests under eaves or in the ground |
Other Critters to Beware of in Summer — and Beyond
If you live out West or in a drier area, watch where you step to avoid snakes, especially on hot days when they tend to be out sunbathing. “Snakes generally should be avoided, and if you can get close enough to take a picture with your phone, you’re too close,” says Brian J. Wolk, M.D., board-certified toxicologist. Not all snakes are venomous, but beware of those with triangular-shaped heads or with a rattle, which are indicative of a venomous pit viper. “If bitten, seek immediate medical attention,” Wolk adds. “Do not bite or suck the venom out, as this is ineffective and may cause tissue damage.”
Any spider can and will bite, and not all spider bites are dangerous. However, if you’ve been bitten by a black/brown widow or a brown recluse spider, you might be in for some hefty pain. “The bite site will look fairly unimpressive, but the pain can be excruciating and fairly rapid,” Wolk says. A brown recluse bite can cause flu-like symptoms and may even develop a shallow ulcer that takes months to heal, but other than keeping it clean, there’s not much you can do but wait, Wolk adds.
Depending on the species, a jellyfish sting can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, numbness, tingling and, in severe cases, shortness of breath. Heed posted signs on the beach that indicate a jellyfish bloom, and wear a wet suit, mask or other protective gear when swimming in the ocean. And before your buddy offers to pee on your leg, know this: Urine will not reduce the pain. Instead, rinse the area with vinegar, remove any tentacles with tweezers and soak the area in hot water for 20 minutes or more.
This plant is covered with tiny hair-like filaments (the nettles) that pierce your skin and clothing when touched, stinging and/or causing a rash. Avoid rubbing the affected area, which can further embed the nettles into your skin, and wait at least 10 minutes for the toxin to dry out before using soap and water to gently wash your skin. A cool compress, aloe vera or baking soda and water poultice may help calm the sting.