By Dr. Charles Gardner & Dr. Nicolas Sheppard-Jones
The promise of warm summer days brings hope as we leave behind a winter marked by the COVID-19 pandemic and the hardships it has imposed. The toll on our mental health has been significant, worsened by the more sedentary lifestyle many of us have been forced to lead over the course of the pandemic. Getting outdoors to enjoy green spaces and to take part in physical activities, such as hiking and cycling, can be beneficial to the well-being of all. Following a few simple precautions will help you and your family stay safe while you enjoy the benefits of outdoor activities this summer.
While the benefits of COVID-19 vaccines can already be seen, we must continue to follow public health measures this summer. It is important to respect physical distancing and to wear a mask when distancing is made difficult during outdoor activities (e.g., on crowded trails). Of course, basic actions such as proper hand hygiene and staying home if sick must still be taken.
When enjoying the outdoors, we inevitably enter tick and mosquito habitats. The risks of Lyme disease, transmitted by blacklegged ticks, and West Nile Virus, carried by certain mosquitoes, are increasing throughout Simcoe Muskoka because of the warmer temperatures brought on by climate change. Cases of Lyme disease have doubled in the past few years. Similarly, in 2017 seven cases of WNV were reported, which represents more than double the historical average. In addition, the first-ever human case of mosquito-borne Eastern Equine Encephalitis Virus (EEEV) was confirmed in our region last year. EEEV is a rare but serious infection that can be fatal or cause permanent brain damage in cases where the infection reaches the brain (a condition called encephalitis).
To lower your chances of being exposed to tick or mosquito-borne illnesses you can take the following actions:
- Avoid being outdoors at dusk or dawn when mosquitoes are most active.
- When outdoors in grassy or wooded areas, wear light-coloured, long-sleeved shirts and pants, wear shoes with closed toes, and tuck your pant cuffs into your socks. Light coloured clothing makes ticks easier to see.
- Use an insect repellent containing DEET or icaridin. Before using an insect repellent, make sure it is registered in Canada, read the label, and follow directions. If using a spray repellent, be sure to use the product in a well-ventilated area. Apply only to exposed skin and/or clothing – never underneath clothing.
- Do a full body tick check on yourself and your family (including pets) after being outdoors (for instructions on doing a tick check and to learn more about Lyme disease, please visit smdhu.org/Lyme).
Finally, summertime means more exposure to heat and to harmful rays from the sun. To avoid heat-related illness such as heat stroke, stay hydrated and look for cool, shaded areas when the sun is out. Practice sun safety by wearing a wide-brimmed hat and long sleeves, using sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more. Taking these precautions is particularly important during peak sunlight hours (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.).
We strongly encourage regular physical activity and respectful interaction with nature throughout the year. With seasonal precautions, outdoor activities can provide healthy, lasting, and rewarding experiences.
Dr. Gardner is the Simcoe Muskoka Medical Officer of Health.
Dr. Nicolas Sheppard-Jones is a medical resident training in public health and preventive medicine.