Exposure of Environmental Illnesses in Wilderness Safety
Exposure of  Environmental Illnesses in Wilderness Safety

Illness and injury can come from exposure to the elements and conditions in the wilderness. Just as it is important that you know how to treat a fractured bone or help someone in your group who may be having an asthma attack, it is just as important to be aware of environmental injuries and illnesses that can occur, as well as how to treat them.

The Most Common Environmental Illness

Bowel problems are the most common environmental illness. Changes in the food you eat and the amount of water you consume can cause this problem to arise. Eating spoiled food, using dirty utensils and dishes, drinking unclean water, fatigue, and stress can also cause it. If you suffer from diarrhea and have anti-diarrhea medication on hand, take it according to the instructions on the package. If you do not have medication on hand, drink clear liquids for 24 hours. After 24 hours, continue to drink clear liquids, but also begin to eat bland foods. To treat constipation, drink plenty of fluids and get exercise.

Illnesses Caused by Heat

Exposure to heat and hot temperatures can bring on illnesses. It does not take a sun allergy or even extremely hot temperatures to cause these types of illnesses. Heat illnesses can include heat rash, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, sunburn, muscle cramps, and hyponatremia.

Preventing Sunburn

Sunburn can be prevented by using sunscreen and wearing clothing that protects your skin from exposure to the sun. Sunburns should be treated by applying a cool compress, in addition to avoiding further exposure to the sun. Cover any sunburned areas on your body.

Treating Heat Rash

A heat rash, noticeable by its red bumps, will usually appear in moist, covered areas of your body. To treat heat rash, keep the area where the rash is located clean and dry. You could also air it out whenever you can. Apply hydrocortisone cream to the affected area twice a day.

Relieving Muscle Cramps

Muscle cramps are caused by hot climates, excesssive sweating, or salt loss from the body. They typically occur in the calves or admomen while the person's body tempature is normal. Muscle cramps should be treated by stretching out the muscle. You can prevent muscle cramps by consuming plenty of water during activities in hot and cold environments.

About Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion is caused by activity in hot climates. Typically, it is accompanied by mild or total dehydration. Treat exhaustion by resting in a shady and cool area. Make sure to drink plenty of water. Most people do not realize that heat exhaustion is a form of shock. For that reason, the ill person should lie down and elevate his feet 8 to 12 inches.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include:

1. Feeling faint

2. Feeling weak

3. Cold and clammy skin

4. Headache

5. Nausea

6. Confusion

Treating Heatstroke

A heat stroke happens when the body is unable to get rid of its heat. When this happens, the body temperature continues to rise. The body's temperature gets so high that damage is done to the brain and vital organs. When someone suffers from a heatstroke, getting immediate treatment is critical. Remove the person's clothing. Cover the person with wet towels, or place the person in cool (not icy) water. You can also fan the person to help cool them down.

Symptoms of heatstroke can include:

1. Headache

2. Weakness

3. Lightheadedness

4. Flushed, dry skin

5. Rapid full pulse

6. Confusion

7. Unconsciousness and convulsions can happen in severe cases

Treating Hyponatremia

Hyponatremia is a serious condition and can be fatal. It occurs in hot weather when a person is drinking a lot of water while losing a lot of body salt through sweating. This leads to a lack of sodium in the blood. To treat hyponatremia, move the ill person to a shaded area and treat the person for shock. You should also feed the victim salty foods and give them small quantities of salted water or sports drinks. Seek immediate medical attention if the person experiences a decrease or change in mental alertness.

Symptoms of hyponatremia can include:

1. Dizziness

2. Confusion

3. Nausea

4. Vomiting

5. Cramps

6. Frequent urination

7. Coma and death can occur in extreme cases

Illnesses Caused by Cold

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Exposure to cold temperatures can cause illness just as hot temperatures can. You can have all the proper gear, but still fall victim to the effects of a cold climate on your body. What is important is that you learn to recognize the symptoms of these illnesses, as well as how to treat them.


Hypothermia is a condition that occurs when your body temperature is dangerously low. The best way to treat hypothermia is to prevent it from happening. Avoid exposure to extremely cold temperatures. If you cannot avoid exposure, wear proper clothing for the environment and stay hydrated. If hypothermia occurs, get out of the cold and wet. Put on dry clothes, including a hat and gloves. If you have a sleeping bag, take off your clothes and climb into the sleeping bag. In extreme cases, someone else should remove their clothes and climb in with you. Drink warm fluids and consume carbohydrates.

Symptoms of hypothermia can include:

1. Uncontrollable shivering

2. Slurred speech

3. Fatigue

4. Drowsiness

5. Decreased hand and eye coordination

6. Slurred speech

7. Weakened respiration

8. Weakened pulse


Frostbite is defined as injury to body tissue caused by exposure to the cold. Most commonly, frostbite affects the fingers, toes, and face. Superficial frostbite will cause cold, numb, and painful extremities. They will look white or grayish in color. You can treat superficial frostbite by rewarming the area using your body heat. For example, you can place your hands in your armpits or your feet on someone else's abdomen. Do not blow on affected areas. Blowing results in moisture, which can cause more freezing or refreezing.

Deep frostbite is the more severe type of frostbite. Deep frostbite occurs when skin has a white appearance, becomes numb, and is hard. Do not try to rewarm deep frostbite. Instead, avoid further freezing and injury by staying out of the elements if possible and wearing appropriate clothing.

Trench Foot

Wearing cold, wet socks for long periods of time is the cause of trench foot. Typically, it takes days or weeks of wearing cold, wet socks for this condition to occur. To treat trench food, keep the feet dry and elevated. Do not rub it, because it can result in further tissue damage. Pat wet feet dry instead. Trench foot can be prevented by changing wet socks frequently, avoiding tight clothing, and massaging the feet for increased circulation.

Symptoms of trench foot can include:

• A dishpan appearance to the feet

• Painful and swollen feet

Sun and Snow Blindness

Sun and snow blindness happen as a result of exposure to the sun's rays. It happens more often when you are in areas where the sun's rays reflect off water, snow, or lightly colored objects. To prevent sun and snow blindness, wear 100% UV sunglasses. If sun or snow blindness occurs, apply a cool compress to the eyes and administer pain medication.

Symptoms of sun and snow blindness can include:

1. Bloodshot eyes

2. Teary eyes

3. Headaches

4. Light sensitivity

5. A gritty sensation in the eyes

Evaluating the Potential for Altitude Illness

Mountaineers divide altitude into three different levels to help determine their risk for altitude illness.

1. High altitude is defined as 8,000 to 14,000 feet

2. Very high altitude is defined as 14,000 to 18,000 feet

3. Extremely high altitude is above 18,000 feet.

It should go without saying that the higher the altitude, the greater the risk.

About Altitude Illnesses

As your altitude increases, so does your risk of developing some sort of altitude illness. This is because your body goes through changes as you increase your altitude. Your heart and respiratory rate increase. There is increased capillary and red blood cell production. In addition, there is changes in your body's capacity to deliver oxygen. These changes happen within days or weeks.

High altitude illnesses are caused by a reduction of oxygen in the body caused by decreased atmospheric pressure. The three types of altitude illnesses you need to be aware of are acute mountain sickness, high altitude pulmonary edema, and high altitude cerebral edema.

To lessen the impact if high altitudes on your body:

1. Ascend gradually. You increase your risk of an altitude illness if you make a rapid ascension.

2. If you make a rapid ascension, avoid heavily exerting yourself for a few days after reaching your desired altitude.

3. Limit your salt intake at higher altitudes. You should only ingest minimal amounts of salt. Both high altitude pulmonary edema and high altitude cerebral edema involve swelling and a buildup of fluid. If you ingest a lot of salt, this can increase the swelling and fluid buildup.

About Acute Mountain Sickness

Acute mountain sickness can occur at altitudes greater than 8,000 feet. To treat acute mountain sickness, give the body time to get used to the new altitude by resting as much as possible for two or three days once you arrive at your intended altitude. Stay away from alcohol and tobacco. You should eat foods high in carbohydrates and consume plenty of liquids. If it becomes severe and oxygen is needed, administer 2 liters per minute using a face mask for at least fifteen minutes. If this does not help or things get worse, descend a few thousand feet. This usually works.

Symptoms of acute mountain sickness can include:

1. Fatigue

2. Dizziness

3. Headache

4. Shortness of breath

5. Nausea

6. Vomiting

7. Decreased appetite

8. Bluing around the lips and fingers. This is called cyanosis.

9. A feeling of uneasiness

10. Fluid retention in the face and hands

About High Altitude Pulmonary Edema

High altitude pulmonary edema is an altitude illness that is caused by a buildup of fluid in the lungs. It is extremely dangerous. It happens at altitudes of over 8,000 feet and is usually the result of the climber doing strenuous activities immediately after the climb. If you suspect that you or someone in your group has high altitude pulmonary edema, immediately descend 2,000 to 3,000 feet - or until the symptoms ease up. Once you have descended and the symptoms ease up, the ill person should rest for two or three days so the extra fluid can be reabsorbed by the body. If you have oxygen on hand, administer it to someone with high altitude pulmonary edema at the rate of four to six liters per minute for fifteen minutes using a tight-fitting face mask. Continue giving oxygen for at least twelve hours. If the ill person's condition becomes severe, they should be evacuated to a hospital as soon as possible.

Symptoms of high altitude pulmonary edema can include:

1. Shortness of breath upon exertion. As symptoms progress, there may also be shortness of breath when the person is resting.

2. Shortness of breath when laying down. This makes it hard to sleep.

3. A dry cough that turns into a wet, productive, and persistent cough.

4. Unconsciousness in severe cases. If the ill person is not given oxygen and brought to a lower altitude, they will die.

About High Altitude Cerebral Edema

High altitude cerebral edema is swelling of the brain. It most commonly occurs at altitudes over 12,000 feet. To treat high altitude cerebral edema, descend to a lower altitude immediately. If you have oxygen on hand, administer it at the rate of four to six liters for fifteen minutes, followed by two liters per minute. You should continue administering oxygen for 12 hours. Anyone who falls victim to high altitude cerebral edema should not return to climbing, even if they recover quickly. If someone's symptoms become severe or they become unconscious, they should be transported to a hospital as soon as possible.

Symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema can include:

1. Symptoms of acute mountain sickness

2. Bad headache

3. Confusion

4. Loss of memory

5. Poor judgment

6. Hallucinations

7. Poor coordination. This is known as ataxia.

8. Coma and death

Recognizing the symptoms of high altitude cerebral edema are key to saving the person's life.