How to avoid summer injuries

Summer can be full of fun, but also hazards. A Carolina injury prevention and public health expert describes the most common reasons for emergency room visits and how you can avoid them.

Boy jumping from a boat into a lake. He's wearing a life vest.
Water-related injuries such as near-drownings peak in July, according to data used by Carolina's Injury Prevention Research Center. (Shutterstock image)

Summertime … and the injuries keep coming.

July is the peak month for all kinds of dangers related to water, animals (including snakes) and outdoor activity. With July Fourth fireworks and their risks behind us, let’s take a look at other summer hazards and tips for how to avoid them.

At Carolina’s Injury Prevention Research Center, Director Steve Marshall and his colleagues know what sends North Carolinians to emergency rooms.

They look at data from the North Carolina Disease Event Tracking and Epidemiologic Collection Tool, a statewide system for collecting and analyzing data for use in early detection of public health events. In 2004, the North Carolina Division of Public Health created NC DETECT in collaboration with the Carolina Center for Health Informatics in the UNC School of Medicine’s emergency medicine department.

All civilian emergency departments in the state submit data to NC DETECT. Personnel from the surveillance system and the North Carolina Hospital Association oversee data collection from hospitals while the Carolina Center for Health Informatics manages data quality issues, storage and analyses.

Steve Marshall

Steve Marshall

“If you want to know something about non-fatal injuries, it’s an incredibly useful source of data,” said Marshall, who is also an epidemiology professor in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. “It’s unusual for a state to have such a reliable and well-established resource.”

The center uses NC DETECT to generate reports for many reasons, such as helping a state agency or the legislature make decisions. Marshall said that the reports show summer trends that are quite stable from year to year.

Here’s a look at what the data can tell us about who’s apt to be hurt and how, along with Marshall’s top tips:

Water-related injuries

Respect water. That’s Marshall’s #1 rule. That respect is a key prevention method. Close to 30% of near drownings, injuries on watercraft and water-related injuries happen in July, so now is the time to give water its proper respect. Children from babies to age 14 have the highest risk of drowning, according to NC DETECT.

In addition to respecting water, Marshall offers this advice:

  • Watch your children at all times. “People underestimate how quickly a child can drown or nearly drown. It can happen in minutes and sometimes in quite shallow water. Natural bodies of water like the ocean, with its rip currents, along with lakes, streams and rivers have their own characteristics that you need to know about. At the beach, be vigilant, particularly for rip currents, and know what they look like.”
  • Pools, large and small, are potentially dangerous. “It’s surprising how often manmade bodies of water, like a swimming pool, even a wading pool in the yard, can present a hazard for children.”
  • Think about unseen hazards. “We would all like to dive into a cool stream or lake in the middle of summer. Instead, get into it one foot at a time because you don’t know what’s under the water. There could be a rock or other object there.”
  • Control and be careful with Jet Skis and other motorized watercraft. “They’re a bunch of fun, but it pays to be circumspect and respect such powerful machines. Take your time to ease into it, practice with it and learn to control it.”

Snake bites

In the summer, people (and snakes) are out enjoying warm weather, so they will encounter each other. In fact, July is the top month for snake bites with 9.8 emergency room visits per 100,000 persons across the state. Eighty percent of annual emergency visits for bites are for venomous snakes.

For snakes, Marshall’s admonitions begin with a simple rule of thumb:

  • “Leave all snakes alone, because they are fine. They are happy doing their thing.”
  • Be careful reaching under plants and bushes and in spaces where you cannot see.
  • Watch for snakes, particularly copperheads, warming themselves on the road, sidewalk or street in the early morning and evenings.
  • Wear shoes, even if it’s Crocs, when walking outdoors. “Enclose your feet to slow down any biting creatures or even a piece of broken glass.

Animal encounters

When a dog bites or deer cross the road unexpectedly, people often end up at the emergency room.

Bites can cause infection, rabies exposure and, sometimes, death. For dog bites, NC DETECT data show that bite-related emergency room trips peak in the summer and that children ages 5 to 9 visit the ER more often for bites than any other age group. Newborns to age 4 is the next group most likely to make a bite-related trip to the hospital. Cat-bite emergency visits increase with age, peaking at 79 and older.

Wild animals are out in the summer, often crossing roads. “It’s amazing how many car crashes occur from people swerving to avoid a deer or hitting a deer or a deer running into the car or swerving to avoid other creatures on the road,” Marshall said.

“Animals have been moving around our state for a long, long time, thousands of years, then we came along and built roads across their trails.”

Marshall’s top tips for avoiding animal-related injuries:

  • Always be careful with any animal, and teach children how to behave appropriately around animals. “Sometimes, even the sweetest dog, if it’s pushed too far, can respond with a snap and hurt a child. Show respect and don’t provoke dogs.”
  • Drive slower. “We’re all in a ferocious hurry to get places, but to what purpose? A little less speed buys you an extra couple of seconds when you encounter an unexpected critter on the road. That can make all the difference between going around a turtle and safely staying on the road and losing control while avoid an animal and crashing. If you add up the few seconds you save here and there by going 55 instead of 45, it’s chump change. It’s an old adage, but the data bear it out: Speed kills.”