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Camping and Outdoor Poison Dangers


Camping and Outdoor Poison Dangers

Camping and outdoor activities can be a fun, but leaving the crowded city to enjoy the outdoors does not mean you should leave poison prevention behind. Poison dangers are everywhere. Here are some common poison hazards to look out for when you are camping, backpacking, or enjoying the outdoors.

Food Poisoning
Food poisoning is a common ailment. It is estimated that every year, 1 in 6 Americans get sick with a foodborne illness. There are steps you can take to prevent food poisoning from ruining a trip.

Wash hands and work surfaces thoroughly before, during, and after preparing food at your campsite. Germs can survive in many places, including cutting boards and utensils. Cross-contamination can happen when bacteria transfers from other foods, cutting boards, or utensils. To avoid cross-contamination, keep raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs, separate from other foods.

When cooking outdoors over a campfire or stove, remember to cook food to the correct internal temperature for that food type. Use a food thermometer to ensure that fresh cuts of beef, pork, ham, veal, lamb, and fish are cooked to 145°F, ground meats including beef, pork, veal, and lamb are cooked to 160° F, and poultry should be cooked to 165°F. Egg dishes should reach 160°F.

Harmful bacteria can thrive in the danger zone-between 40°F and 140°F. To be safe, keep hot foods at or above 140°F, and cold foods at or below 40°F. To keep foods cold, use at least two frozen sources in your cooler such as frozen gel packs, frozen boxed drinks, or ice. Blocks of ice will keep longer than cubes. Store leftovers in the cooler within 2 hours of cooking. If outdoor temperature is above 90°F, refrigerate food within 1 hour, since higher temperatures allow bacteria to grow quickly. Ensure the temperature of your cooler or trailer refrigerator is 40°F or below. Never store the cooler in a vehicle where temperatures are high, instead place in a cool, shaded area.

Alcohol Poisoning
If you plan on drinking alcoholic beverages on your camping trip, remember to play it safe. Alcohol poisoning can have serious and sometimes deadly consequences. To prevent alcohol poisoning, drink in moderation. Avoid situations and drinking games that can pressure people to binge drink. Don’t drink alcohol while taking prescription medications unless you first consult with your doctor. Never leave alcoholic beverages out where children might drink them. Also, be aware of pets that may drink leftover alcohol, especially if poured out on the ground. Be on the safe side and never assume that it is okay to drink more than usual just because you are on vacation or will not be getting behind the wheel of a car.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Carbon monoxide (CO) is called the “silent killer” because the deadly gas is colorless, odorless, and tasteless. It is produced when fuel such as gas, oil, kerosene, wood, or charcoal is burned without enough oxygen in the environment to produce carbon dioxide. To prevent CO poisoning while camping, avoiding cooking or running a generator inside a tent or other enclosed space. Always use fuel-burning equipment outside in a well-ventilated area and never use close to tent or trailer doors or windows. Common symptoms of CO poisoning include headache, nausea, dizziness, and in severe cases, shortness of breath, vomiting, confusion, loss of consciousness and even death. If you suspect CO poisoning, get yourself or the person to fresh air immediately, and call for help.

Bites and Stings
There are a few critters to avoid during outdoor activities. Mosquito and tick bites can put a damper on camping fun. To prevent bites, wear long pants, long-sleeves, and use an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) approved insect repellant that contains one of these activate ingredients: DEET, picaridin, IR3535, oil of lemon eucalyptus, para-menthane-diol, or 2-undecanone.  DEET is not recommended for use in infants less than 2 months of age. If using a repellant containing DEET, the recommended DEET concentration for children 2 months and older no more than 30%. Ticks live in grassy, wooded areas. Walk in the center of trails and avoid bushy areas with tall grasses. Inspect gear, pets, children, and yourself for ticks after spending time in tick habitat. Keep insect repellant and other first aid products up and out of reach of small children.

Bee and hornet stings can also be a problem when camping. To avoid stings, wear closed-toe shoes when outside, do not wear scented soaps or perfumes since they may attract bees and hornets, and keep food covered until ready to eat. If stung, gently wash the area with soap and water and apply a cool compress. Seek medical attention immediately if a severe allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis occurs. These symptoms include difficulty breathing, hives or swelling, vomiting, and even loss of consciousness.

Rattlesnakes are common in some areas of Utah. Never try to catch or kill a snake and if you hear a rattle: be calm, stand still, and slowly walk away. If you or someone in your camp is bitten by a rattlesnake, stay calm, remove any jewelry or tight clothing in case of swelling, and then get the person to a health care facility as soon as possible. Do not apply a tourniquet nor attempt to cut or suck out the venom.

Wild Plants, Mushrooms, and Berries
When exploring outdoors, never eat or touch an unknown plant or mushroom. Although berries can look harmless, it is never a good idea to eat them and teach children to never put them in their mouth. Avoid foraging for food since dangerous plants and mushrooms may look very similar to edible varieties. 

Be wary of poison ivy and poison oak. These plants are common in Utah and can cause severe rash if touched. Poison ivy usually grows as a vine in low shrubs and can produce flowers and even berries when the seasons change in the spring and fall. Poison oak looks similar and typically grow in shrubs.  To avoid contact with poison ivy and poison oak wear closed-toed shoes, long sleeves, and long pants to avoid exposing bare skin. Before leaving on a camping trip, research the destination area and learn about the poisonous plants, mushrooms, and berries you might encounter there. This may help you safely avoid them.

Call the Poison Control Center
If you or someone else experiences a poison exposure during camping or outdoor activities, call poison control immediately for help at 1-800-222-1222. Utah Poison Control Center offers free, expert, and confidential advice 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.

Author: Mary Jessie Floor, Assistant Health Educator, Utah Poison Control Center



The UPCC is a 24-hour resource for poison information, clinical toxicology consultation, and poison prevention education. The UPCC is a program of the State of Utah and is administratively housed in the University of Utah, College of Pharmacy. The UPCC is nationally certified as a regional poison control center.