GALVESTON, Texas - Heading out to have some fun outdoors? If so, don't forget to pack the vinegar and liquid bleach. That's the advice of Jon D. Thompson, director of the Southeast Texas Poison Center at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, who says that vinegar and bleach provide some quick first-aid for certain types of bites or stings.

As you plan for the July 4th holiday, Thompson and other experts at UTMB are offering some safety and health tips for a safe outing, whether it's a day at the beach or day in your backyard.

Many a picnic can be ruined by the painful sting of a fire ant, bee or wasp.

Thompson says that a diluted solution of bleach and water can relieve the pain, break down the venom and help start the healing process. "Our recommendation is a solution of one part bleach to nine parts water. You can apply this directly or soaked in a paper towel or cloth."

Thompson also has some advice for those headed for the beach. The old adage about using meat tenderizer for a jellyfish sting will still work but Thompson and the Poison Center recommend that vinegar be applied directly to a sting. Vinegar, he explained, does a better and quicker job of breaking down the jellyfish venom.

In addition, "any kind of injury at the beach in or around the water that breaks the skin should be treated very vigorously," Thompson said, explaining that many microorganisms thrive in the warm waters of the Gulf this time of year. After rinsing the wound, wash it with an antibacterial soap and apply an antibiotic ointment to help prevent an infection, he said.

Dr. Erica B. Kelly, a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Dermatology, urges that people protect themselves from the sun.

Everyone planning to be outdoors for a while should use a sunscreen and wear a hat and sunglasses. "For lighter skin types, the best thing is to avoid the midday sun. It is nearly impossible to block it out," Kelly said. She frequently tells her patients, "If your shadow is shorter than you are, you shouldn't be out or you should seek some shade."

People should use a full-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF of at least 30, Kelly said. The biggest mistake that people make is to not apply enough sunscreen and not remembering to reapply it, she said.

She also recommends wearing dark-colored clothing which is more effective in blocking out the sun that light-colored clothing. A common misconception, she says, is that light-colored clothing does a better job of protecting you from the sun.

People especially sensitive to the sun should consider clothing made from fabric designed to block out radiation. A piece of clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor of 50, for example, only lets 1/50th of the UV radiation hitting a garment to pass through to the skin.

Despite precautions people will take and advice provided by experts, Dr. Brian S. Zachariah, the medical director of emergency medicine, expects that the emergency room at UTMB will nonetheless treat people for sunburns, stings, and fireworks burns this summer.

"These are not accidents," Zachariah said. "These are completely preventable. They are lapses in judgment. They are lapses in common sense. They are things that people do because they're not paying attention."

For example, he said that many people do not realize how much the sun's rays penetrate even on cloudy days. Also, relaxing in the water can create a false sense of security.

"They don't realize that if they are in the water and feeling cool that they can still get sunburn. In fact, worse because the sun's rays bounce off the water and come back at you. They're getting more burned than if they were laying on the beach trying to get a tan."

He added: "I've seen people with sunburned feet burned so bad that they couldn't walk. Or with a sunburned back so bad that they couldn't put their clothes on."

He said the mixture of alcohol and boating is dangerous and also results in numerous types of injuries including falls from getting on and off of boats.

People should drink plenty of liquids to avoid dehydration, he said. "Beer doesn't count. It makes you go to the bathroom. It's a diuretic so it makes you even more dehydrated."

Zachariah, Thompson and Kelly also offered these safety tips:

  • Avoid food poisoning. Any food sitting out in the open for an hour or more when the temperature is over 90 degrees should be discarded.
  • When using insect repellant and a sunscreen, put on the sunscreen first.
  • Wear a life preserver when out on a boat.
  • Don't use insect repellant on newborns.
  • Don't hold any fireworks in your hand or point them at anything or anyone.
  • Don't overestimate your swimming ability. Swimming in the ocean is not the same as swimming in your pool. Undertows and currents can swiftly tire out a strong swimmer.
  • Never leave children unattended near the water, near fireworks or a barbeque grill.