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Steer clear of poison ivy, other summer hazards


Staying healthy over the summer means steering clear of common afflictions like poison ivy and heat sickness and preventing worst-case disasters like drowning.

You’re more likely to get heat cramps or a poison ivy rash than to drown, but it’s critical to take these precautions:

  • Learn to swim and be sure your children learn.
  • Always wear a life jacket when boating.
  • Never, ever take your eyes off young kids in the water. Lifeguards can’t watch everyone all the time. Keep novice or poor swimmers in arm’s reach.
  • Close in backyard pools with a fence, and don’t leave standing water in portable splash pools.

Around the Fourth of July, fireworks injuries are another potential summer hazard. Avoid getting hurt by not handling fireworks yourself; instead, watch professional displays from a safe distance. If you do plan to shoot off fireworks, lay off the alcohol.

Sunburns are another summer problem, and by now everyone should know to slather on sunscreen and avoid the midday sun. It’s safer to hit the pool after 4 p.m. Swim shirts also help, especially if you’re fair-skinned. There’s no such thing as a “safe” suntan, dermatologists say.

Below is a primer on how to protect yourself from the other summer plagues: heat illness and poison ivy.


On stifling days, be vigilant about keeping cool, staying hydrated and not ignoring signs that the heat is making you sick. There are three kinds of illness caused by heat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. From mildest to most severe, they are:

  • Heat cramps
  • Heat exhaustion
  • Heat stroke.

Heat cramps are what you think: Muscle cramps caused by the heat. Along with cramps, symptoms include heavy sweating, fatigue and thirst. At this stage, stop what you’re doing, move to a shady spot and drink lots of cold fluids. Sports drinks are helpful, the Mayo Clinic says on its website.

The next stage of heat sickness is heat exhaustion. Symptoms include:

  • Cool, moist skin with goose bumps
  • Heavy sweating
  • Feeling faint or dizzy
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Headache.

Hyperventilation and irritability can be other signs of heat exhaustion, says kids As a parent, I know irritability is often a sign that a child isn’t feeling well.

If you experience signs of heat exhaustion, it’s critically important to stop all activity, get to a shady spot, and drink cold water or sports drinks.

If symptoms don’t ease up after about an hour, or if they worsen, or if your temperature reaches 104 degrees, seek medical care. If heat exhaustion progresses to heat stroke, you need to get to a doctor right away; call 911.

Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness. It can be fatal. According to the Mayo Clinic and the CDC, symptoms include:

  • Red, hot, dry skin—and no sweating
  • Confusion
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding what others are saying
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea
  • Throbbing headache
  • Muscle problems—cramps at first, followed by muscle weakness
  • Unconsciousness.

If you see someone suffering heat stroke, call 911 and get the person to a cool, shady spot. Then cool the person down; good options include placing ice packs on the neck and groin; spraying cool water on the person; using a fan.

What can you do to prevent heat sicknesses?

  • Stay hydrated, but not by drinking alcohol; it dehydrates you.
  • Stay out of the midday heat.
  • Avoid strenuous activity in severe heat.
  • Know your risks. Young children and people over 65 have a harder time regulating their body temperature, so the heat hits them hardest. Certain medications—including beta blockers, diuretics and stimulants—also can up the risk of heat sickness. So can heart and lung diseases and being overweight.


“Leaves of three, let them be.” It’s still good advice. But in parks and other wooded areas where poison ivy lies in wait, there’s no guarantee you won’t brush up against some of it.

Wearing long pants and long-sleeved shirts and gloves can protect you, but wearing all that in the heat may make you miserable.

Short of layering up and keeping your eyes glued to the foliage, what else can you do?

One option is to put on a cream containing bentoquatam, which “works by forming a coating on the skin that protects it from the plant oils that may cause a rash,” says the National Institutes of Health online. You can buy the skin protectant without a prescription; a brand name product is IvyBlock.

If you do come into contact with the oil on poison ivy (or oak or sumac) leaves, what can you do? Here’s what the American Academy of Dermatology recommends:

  • Wash your skin with lukewarm water right away.
  • Wash the clothes you were wearing right away. Also wash your shoes and anything else that might have come into contact with the leaves’ oil, which is what causes rashes.
  • Be prepared to itch. The itching could last for weeks. To minimize your suffering, try taking an oatmeal or baking soda bath, applying cool compresses and taking antihistamine pills.
  • If you’re really miserable or the rash is widespread, check in with your doctor; you might benefit from taking an oral steroid such as prednisone.

Get more poison ivy advice online at ditions/dermatology-a-to-z/poison-ivy/tips.


  • For more information about staying safe in the summer, visit these websites:
  • Safe Kids USA: (type “water safety” in the search box)
  • The National Council on Fireworks Safety:
  • The American Academy of Dermatology: (type “poison ivy” into the search box)
  • The Skin Cancer Foundation:

Janet Marshall: 540/374-5527