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Healthy Traveler

Spend Time by the Campfire, Not Camp Clinic

May 25, 1997|KATHLEEN DOHENY

Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of the summer camping season. It's also the time of year when health professionals at clinics and hospitals in and near campgrounds gear up for an influx of ailing and injured campers.

"We'll see 50 to 70 people on a busy summer day," said Al Montoya, a physician assistant at Yosemite Medical Clinic in Yosemite National Park. Those numbers are at least double the usual patient load in the winter, he added.

To salvage camping trips and reduce time spent waiting in a clinic or emergency room, there is much that campers can do both before and during an outdoor trip, Montoya and other experts agreed.

When packing for a camping trip, include enough regularly used prescription medicine to cover the length of the excursion. For instance, Montoya said that families sometimes forget to pack enough asthma medicine for their children.

Campers with asthma should ask their physicians if dose changes will be necessary to combat potential triggers, such as smoke from campfires.

It's not always simple to get prescription medicine while in the wilderness. "We have a dispensary of about 150 medicines," Montoya said. "But we are not a pharmacy. We can only dispense prepackaged and sealed medicine prescribed by a clinic physician."

The nearest pharmacy is about 70 miles away from Yosemite, and the closest hospital is about a three-hour drive.

Be sure tetanus immunizations are current, Montoya said. Writing the date of the last tetanus shot on the back of a driver's license is an easy way to keep track.

Pack a first-aid kit that includes basics and is also individualized, said Dr. John Horton, a Westlake Village family practitioner with a special interest in travel medicine.

Basics include antibacterial soap, bandages, dressings, tape, an orthopedic wrap in case of strains or sprains, lip balm, sun block, a compass, aspirin or acetaminophen, hydrocortisone cream, poison ivy and oak remedies, anti-diarrheal tablets, a thermometer, burn ointment and a pocket-size first-aid book. (Among companies that offer prepackaged first-aid kits are Magellan's, [800] 962-4943 and Atwater Carey, [800] 359-1646.)

Packing whistles for young children is another good idea, Montoya said. Parents need to teach kids to use them, should they become separated from the group.

Once at the campground, travelers can further minimize the risk of injuries from the moment they choose a spot to pitch their tent.

* Don't pitch it near the nests of rodents or ground squirrels, which can carry fleas that transmit bubonic plague, Montoya said. Camping on a relatively level spot free of gopher or other animal holes is also wise, since the holes can cause falls resulting in sprains and strains.

* Campfire burns are especially common among children, Montoya said. Often they are the result of parents not keeping a careful watch on kids playing near the fire.

* Drinking too much alcohol often precedes camping injuries and accidents, Horton said. "After two or three beers, one's judgment, perception and coordination are affected," he said.

* Sunburn can be avoided by using a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 15, Montoya said.

* Dehydration can be avoided by drinking enough water to require frequent bathroom stops. "If you are not stopping to urinate every couple of hours, you are not drinking enough," Montoya tells campers.

* Pay attention to insect bites. To minimize risk of Lyme disease, knock ticks off the skin as soon as they are detected, Montoya said. Seek medical help if a bite is suspected. Symptoms of Lyme disease can mimic those of other diseases. In early stages, these often include fatigue, chills, fever, headache, swollen lymph nodes and a characteristic skin rash that appears three days to a month after the bite and looks like a bull's-eye. But sometimes the rash is simply an allergic reaction to the bite, not a sign of Lyme disease. (For more information, contact the American Lyme Disease Foundation, [800] 876-LYME.)

* Don't drink water from streams or rivers.

* Be aware of the first symptoms of altitude sickness, which isn't usually a concern until about 8,000 feet or higher, Horton said. Altitude sickness is not necessarily associated with fitness level or age, he said. "Sometimes younger people have more problems." Headache, blurry vision and dizziness can all be symptoms. Descend as quickly as possible; seek medical help if problems persist.

The Healthy Traveler appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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