Your home’s garden might seem like a safe place to while away a spring or summer day. But unexpected health and safety threats may lurk above and beneath the soil.
From sunburn to bug bites and tetanus infection, the garden can be a source of several health threats. But taking steps to protect against the following five hazards can keep you safe this season.
1. Tetanus infection
This illness can cause lockjaw, muscle spasms and seizures. In between 10 and 20 percent of cases, it causes breathing problems that kill the infected individual, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“Tetanus is not a trivial illness,” says Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases.
Tetanus can be found in many places, including soil, dust and manure. It infects the body through breaks in the skin.
Dr. William Schaffner, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, recalls the case of a patient who was trying to plant a garden and cut her ankle with a ground stake.
She then “just casually cleaned off the wound” and used a bandana as a bandage. The woman developed tetanus and went through a “long and stormy course in the hospital,” Schaffner says.
Most people are vaccinated for tetanus when they are children, but many do not realize that you need a booster shot every 10 years to maintain maximum protection against tetanus.
Schaffner says “a very substantial proportion of people in the U.S. are delinquent,” in receiving their booster shots, which are highly effective in preventing tetanus infection.
“Fortunately, it’s a very easy illness to prevent,” Schaffner says.
2. Sunburn and sunstroke
Most of us know that painful feeling of sunburn. But the potential consequences of such burns can linger long after the skin has healed. Getting a bad sunburn just once every two years triples your risk of melanoma skin cancer, according to Cancer Research UK.
Gardening in excessive heat can also cause your body temperature to shoot higher, a potentially fatal condition known as sunstroke. Symptoms include headache, rapid pulse, dizziness, nausea and confusion.
You can avoid these sun- and heat-related threats by taking several precautionary steps, including:
- Wearing sunscreen. The CDC suggests a product with sun protective factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
- Drinking plenty of fluids, while avoiding alcohol and other liquids with high sugar content
- Taking breaks often and resting in cool or shaded places
3. Bug bites and associated diseases
Mosquitos, ticks and other pests are hanging out in your garden, just waiting to spoil your summer fun. This year, the emergence of Zika virus has left people worried that a mosquito bite could result in something far worse than an itchy raised welt.
Meanwhile, ticks can crawl from the garden into your skin, putting you in danger of Lyme disease.
To keep such pests at bay, cover the skin by wearing long sleeves and long pants — tucked into your socks — when practical. Use a repellant containing DEET to protect exposed skin.
High rubber boots offer added protection against ticks, which tend to be found in the ground.
4. Hand injuries
Hand injuries while gardening are most likely to fall into one of two categories, says Dr. Rachel S. Rohde, chair of the Public Education Committee of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand.
Acute injuries, such as punctures by thorns, or lacerations by sharp objects and instruments. Wearing gloves can help prevent such wounds.
Chronic issues, such as pain related to aggressive pruning or carrying heavy landscaping goods. These injuries typically involve pain from tendons, joints and muscles. Rohde says they can be the result of:
- Gardening for prolonged periods in awkward positions
- Using tools that either are not right for the job or not right for the size and shape of your hands
- Working for many hours without resting or changing patterns
“We see a lot of tennis elbow, wrist and hand tendonitis, and flares of arthritis,” she says. “Modifying your position, using ergonomic tools and taking frequent breaks between tasks can help.”
5. Injuries from power equipment
Noisy garden implements such as tillers and cultivators can damage hearing. If you have to raise your voice to talk to someone an arm’s length away, your hearing is at risk, according to the CDC. Foam earplugs can protect your ears in such situations.
Power tools of all kinds can throw up rocks and other debris when you least expect it, so use goggles to protect your eyes.