There’s no doubt the start of barbecue season is cause for celebration. In fact, with the impending break from classes, grading exams and preparing lesson plans, it’s not uncommon for educators to fire up the grill early in the season. After all, outdoor grilling is a classic American pastime complete with barbecue favorites like burgers, dogs, salads and fries.
While safety concerns may not be top of mind when preparing your backyard cookout, according to Kitu Garg, M.D., internist at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation, it’s important to be aware of the inherent health risks associated with outdoor food prep and exposure to insects.
From not-quite-cooked chicken to an unexpected lightning storm, here are seven summer hazards that can spoil even the best backyard barbecue:
1. Bee stings. Bees start buzzing as temperatures rise and pollen counts are at their highest. To minimize your chances of getting stung, avoid fragrant lotions and perfumes. And if you think you’re being pursued, go indoors, dive into the pool or drop your soda can and run. Still get stung? Call 911 if you have a known allergy, or you develop shortness of breath or difficulty breathing or swallowing, says Susi Vassalllo, M.D., clinical associate professor, Ronald O. Perelman Department of Emergency Medicine, New York University School of Medicine. Otherwise, scrape the stinger off (but don’t squeeze because you may inadvertently squeeze more venom into your system). Then apply cool compresses and calamine lotion to ease the pain.
2. Charred meat. While you may love the classic char marks on freshly grilled meat, those crisp edges and smoky flavors could pose a significant risk. It turns out carcinogens called heterocyclic amines (HCAs) show up on blackened meat. The solution: Cook at a lower temperature (with coals glowing, not flaming) and lower the lid. Using gas? Light the outer burners (but not the center one) and cook food in the center with the lid closed.
3. Food poisoning. Food poisoning not only causes severe tummy trauma, it also accounts for 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations and 3,000 deaths annually in the United States—and cases hit record highs as the weather warms up. In most cases, the immune system is strong enough to fight off the bacteria within a week. “However, if your symptoms are associated with fevers, stomach cramps or dehydration, as indicated by lightheadedness or decreased urine, see your doctor for further guidance,” says Garg.
A better approach: Prevent foodborne illness altogether. Wash your hands before eating and after handling uncooked meat. Test your meat before you eat (meat should be cooked until the internal temperature is 160 F or hotter). Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold. And never let perishables—including grandma’s favorite macaroni salad—sit outside for more than two hours.
4. Dehydration. When your body is exposed to heat, sweat is the natural response, leading you to lose needed water. Add salty barbecued foods and booze to the mix and dehydration can come on fast. It’s sometimes difficult to see the effects of dehydration in the early stages (signs include headache, lightheadedness, dizziness, dry mouth and urinating less frequently), so Garg recommends hydrating early and often if you know you’ll be spending several hours in the sun. Depending how much you’re sweating, a beverage with electrolytes may be best.
5. Heat rash. Heat rash is your body’s way of telling you to get out of the heat and into some AC. “It happens when the sweat glands get plugged up,” says Vassallo, who recommends stripping down if you can. Then take a cool bath with oatmeal. Stuff oatmeal into an old sock, tie it closed and run a bath with the “oatmeal sock” floating in the tub. Oatmeal soothes the skin and the sock protects your bath. Then pop an antihistamine. A mild steroid cream (1% hydrocortisone) may also help alleviate symptoms, says Vassallo.
6. Watch your grill. The central element of any barbecue is a working grill. To keep yourself and your guests safe, stash a fire extinguisher within reach, keep your grill at least 10 feet away from your home and have spray water bottles handy. Clean your grill regularly, check for gas leaks and have the fire department’s phone number handy, just in case.
7. Lightning. Turns out getting struck by lightning isn’t as uncommon as you think. According to the National Weather Service storm data, there are more than 50 reported lightning fatalities each year. Only about 10% of people who are struck by lightning are killed, leaving 90% with various degrees of disability. Want to avoid becoming a statistic? Search out a low-lying area if you’re caught outdoors (lightning is attracted to the high points). Then, limit your contact with the earth, crouch down on your toes with your heels up and put your fingers in your ears. “Otherwise, if you’re struck, you’ll lose your hearing as the lightning goes through your body,” says Vassallo, who recommends ditching anything metal or electric, including your cellphone, during a storm.