Think you're ready for yard work and gardening?
It’s spring! After being cooped up all winter, it’s great to go outside and get the garden and yard ready. But first, make sure you’re ready to avoid any unpleasant surprises.
First and foremost, know your limitations, said Jacob G. Crowell, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Cape Cod Hospital and Cape Cod Healthcare Urgent Care Centers.
“If you have trouble going upstairs to go to bed at night, you probably shouldn’t be climbing a ladder to do some work outside,” he said. “Yesterday I saw someone who was very lucky to be alive after falling off a ladder.”
While heart attacks from shoveling snow are more common, he said, overexertion from moving dirt or mulch can cause the same potentially fatal problem.
“If you’ve been a couch potato all winter, and if you’re moving a bunch of sand and feel pressure or pain in your chest, seek medical attention right away – instead of pushing through it and having a cardiac arrest on your front lawn,” said Dr. Crowell, who is also medical director for the Cape and Islands Emergency Medical Services System.
Take preventive measures when beginning outdoor work, such as wearing protective clothing and sunscreen, maintaining your power tools and using them carefully, and knowing your own physical limitations, he said.
To avoid accidents, save the cold beers for after mowing the lawn or trimming a tree.
“Alcohol does impair your judgement and coordination,” Dr. Crowell said. “Climbing a ladder or taking the chainsaw out is probably a bad idea after a couple of drinks.”
Drinking alcohol also raises the risk of overheating more quickly, he added.
Older people and those who are overweight, out of shape or ill are more prone to heat-related illness, according to the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control. Some medications for poor circulation, depression and insomnia can also raise that risk.
Most Common Complaints
The two most common complaints that bring home gardeners to the emergency department at Cape Cod Hospital are tick bites and rashes from poison ivy or gypsy moth caterpillars, Dr. Crowell said.
“Two years ago, we very frequently saw rashes similar to poison ivy caused by a strain of caterpillars,” he said.
The National Capital Poison Center suggests wearing a hat and gloves while gardening to avoid exposure to caterpillars and their hairs. The hairs can blow in the wind, but can be removed from skin with sticky tape.
To avoid tick bites, wear long-sleeve shirts and tuck the legs of you pants into your socks, Dr. Crowell said. Wear an insect repellent that contains DEET. When done with the outside work, put your clothes directly into the washing machine, he added, and check yourself and your dogs and cats for ticks.
Treatment for contact dermatitis, or a rash from skin being exposed to poison ivy or other irritant, varies upon the size and location of the affected area.
“When you have a small area (a quarter to coaster in size), you don’t need to see a doctor,” Dr. Crowell said. “Use some topical cortisone (hydrocortisone cream), or take some Benadryl (diphenhydramine, a type of antihistamine) to help with itching.”
For rashes that affect larger areas, or are located on the face or genitals, he said a visit to a doctor will be needed to be diagnosed and likely treated with an oral medication such as prednisone, a steroid that combats inflammation and allergic responses.
Then there’s that sunshine we’ve been missing all winter. A broad-brimmed hat and sunscreen can prevent painful sunburn in the short term and skin cancer in the long run, but these measures can get forgotten during the first forays outside, Dr. Crowell said.
“Getting sun exposure four to five months a year, we don’t always protect ourselves,” he said. “It’s not until they’re out basking in the sun in July that they start thinking about it.”