Health Hazards


Hypothermia is the number one killer of outdoor recreationists. It occurs when the body temperature is lowered and unable to produce heat. Most everyone has experienced mild hypothermia, however, if the process is not stopped, death can occur.

Hypothermia can develop in temperatures as high as the 60's or 70's. It is caused by cool to cold temperatures, wind, lack of sunshine, and most importantly, wet or damp clothing.

Signs include shivering, slow or slurred speech, fumbling or immobile fingers, stumbling, sleepiness and exhaustion.

Take the following precautions to avoid hypothermia:

  • Check weather reports before visiting the forest.
  • Utilize layering techniques to wick away moisture while retaining body warmth. Always bring rain gear. Carry a spare set of dry clothing.
  • Drink water and nibble on snacks frequently.
  • Should you or your partner begin to develop hypothermia, replace all wet clothing with dry. Put on a hat and a warm coat. Wrap up in a blanket or sleeping bag. Get into a warm, dry environment. Do not sleep until all signs of hypothermia are gone. Do not give anything containing caffeine or alcohol.

To avoid hypothermia, be aware and take the necessary precautions. If there are early signs of hypothermia, take steps immediately to rest and get warm.

Drinking Water


Experts estimate that at least 90% of the surface water in the United States, even in the most remote areas, is contaminated with the illness-causing protozoa Cryptosporidium and Giardia lamblia. Bacteria such as Campylobacter, E. coli and Salmonella are also common.


Giardiasis is an intestinal disease caused by Giardia lamblia and related organisms. The giardia organisms are microscopic protozoans and, therefore, invisible to the naked eye. It's important to keep in mind that infected water might look, taste, and smell perfectly safe.

It only takes one giardia organism to cause an infection. Once infected, it may take from a few days to two weeks to become ill. Because of the delay, many people do not immediately expect giardia infection. Symptoms include chronic diarrhea, abdominal cramps, bloating, fatigue, and loss of weight. Giardiasis will not go away on its own! Treatment by a physician is necessary to kill the organisms and produce a cure.

Giardia organisms are carried by humans, wild animals, and some domestic animals. They are spread by improper disposal of human and animal feces. One study completed at Colorado State University found that 90% of all dogs tested were carriers, of giardia organisms.

Bury all feces 8 inches deep and at least 100 feet from water. Also, don't let dogs or other domestic animals defecate in or near water supplies.

The surest way to prevent giardiasis is to take water from public water supplies. Of course, on a long trip this is not an option. Fortunately, there are ways to make the water safe to drink. The most effective way to kill giardia and other waterborne pathogens is to boil the water for at least one minute. Filters work, but make sure they filter as small as 1\ micron. Chemical treatment is considered the least effective form of purification. When using chemical treatment in cold water, it may take hours for purification to occur. Even then, there is still a chance that some giardia might survive.

Fear of contracting giardiasis should not prevent anyone from enjoying the wilderness. By following the above guidelines, you should have a safe and healthy visit to the wilderness.


There is a risk of mosquito bite every time you enter a forest or work in and around the woods. In addition to being uncomfortable, mosquito insect bites can cause illnesses which include several types of encephalitis, dengue and yellow fever, malaria, and West Nile virus. The actual bite comes from the evening and night-time feeding female.

Something to remember: The chance that any one person is going to become ill from a single mosquito bite remains low. The risk of severe illness and death is highest for people over 50 years old, although people of all ages can become ill. 

When dealing with West Nile virus, prevention is your best bet. Fighting mosquito bites reduces your risk of getting this disease, along with others that mosquitoes can carry.

  • Apply insect repellent containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) when you're outdoors.
  • Wear loose fitting clothes to help prevent mosquitoes from reaching the skin and to retain less heat.
  • When ever possible, wear long-sleeved clothes, socks and long pants.
  • In a forest, wear clothing that helps you blend in with the background. Mosquitoes hone in on color contrast and movement.
  • Treat your clothes with permethrin repellents. Do not use permethrins on your skin!
  • Avoid perfumes, colognes, fragrant hair sprays, lotions and soaps which attract mosquitoes.
  • Reduce your risk of exposure by staying indoors during peak mosquito feeding hours (from dusk until dawn).
  • Avoid lingering in places where mosquitoes lay their eggs. Usually this is around standing water.
  • Spray a pyrethrin into the air when confined to a certain outside area.
  • Wash mosquito bites with mild soap and water.

Yellow Jackets

The small wasps called yellow-jackets make nests in abandoned animal holes in the ground. Standing next to or stepping on their nest is taken as a threat and they will attack in numbers. A yellow-jacket can sting repeatedly, sometimes trapped under a loose shirt or shorts. The stings are painful, but the danger is that your body may react to multiple stings by producing a swelling in your throat that shuts down your airway. This is life-threatening, so yellow-jackets are to be avoided. Be aware of small yellow and black wasps flying near the ground. They can be heard as well as seen. Watch where they go, and stay away from that hole!

The yellow-jackets that land on your peanut butter and jelly sandwich will sting only if they are trapped. These are not defending the nest, so you are unlikely to be stung by more than one. Be careful to guard the opening of soft drink containers while drinking. A yellow-jacket that goes inside the container may sting you on the lips or tongue – more than once.

Note that yellow-jackets do not see you as a meal – they attack singly when trapped, or in a group when their nest is threatened.


There are dozens of different spiders in the forest. Only the black widow and the brown recluse spiders are a serious threat. They live mostly in dry, abandoned buildings so you are unlikely to meet one. However, never reach into an enclosed space without a visual check of the inhabitants. Note that all spiders bite only in self-defense.

Ticks, Mosquitoes, Gnats

There are many small flying or crawling insects that see you as the source of a blood meal. Generally, their bite just leaves an itchy bump. But some carry bacteria or viruses that can make you ill. An insect repellent with DEET prevents the bite – be sure to apply it to all exposed skin.

A bite that develops a large red circle or a “bullseye” of concentric circles may be from a tiny deer tick. Deer ticks sometimes carry diseases, so you should consult a doctor in the next few days.

An itchy “bite” that seems to be developing into a BB-sized abscess is probably the bite of one of the harmless spiders. The spider injects a necrotic venom that causes a little of the surrounding flesh to die. Keep the bite area clean and apply an antibiotic while the wound is open, to avoid a secondary infection. It will take about two weeks to heal completely. Poisonous Plants

The most common thing that can spoil a visit to the Forest is not an encounters with bears or snakes. For those that frequent the Forest often, the most difficult thing to avoid are the "poison" plants. The rashes and discomfort can certainly ruin a visit to the Forest.

The Itch that Sticks

There are certain plants in this area that can cause skin rashes and irritations lasting a week or more. Most of the human population reacts to these plants, and sensitivity in individuals changes over time. People who have never had a reaction in the past should still avoid these plants, since toxins can build up in an immune system, and after a certain level cause a reaction. These plants have oils which cause these reactions in humans. The oil is in the stems, leaves, and berries of the plants and can be transmitted by brushing against the plant, or from secondary contact with animals or clothing. When building fires in the forest with downed wood, be careful not to use wood that has vines on it. Some vines may be poison ivy and the smoke from a burning vine can cause serious respiratory problems in some individuals.

Poisonous Plants

Poison Ivy (Toxicodendron radicans)

Found: along trails, roadsides and woodlands

Appearance: trailing, perennial vine. Can also appear as a small bush or as a groundcover.

Things to Look For: Three leaflets which alternate up the stem. Young leaves have a reddish tint and may have either smooth or jagged edges. Old vines are very hairy. In late summer and fall it will have green to white berries on the vines. A verse learned by many children to help them remember poison ivy is: "Leaves of three, let it be; berries white, poison in sight." In the fall this vine turns brilliant red. A similar-looking common vine is Virginia Creeper, but Virginia Creeper has five fan-shaped leaflets.

Treatment if Exposed: Rinse area as soon as possible with lots of cool water and soap. Avoid hot water since it opens the skin's pores more. Do not scrub the area as this will also allow the toxin to get in the pores. Generally a rash appears 12-24 hours after exposure.

Preventing Poison Ivy

Poison Oak (Toxicodendron rydbergii)

Poison Oak is a mostly western U.S. species found in open sunny habitats. 

Poison Sumac (Toxicodendron vernix)

Found: Swamps or very wet areas. Usually in the shade.

Appearance: Shrub or small tree from 6.5 feet to 23 feet tall.

Things to Look For: Shrub with compound leaves and grayish-white berry clusters in swamps. Appears similiar to the fragrant sumac found along roadsides which has fuzzy red berries.

Treatment if Exposed: Rinse area as soon as possible with lots of cool water and soap. Skin rash and irritation will occur upon contact and can last a week or more.

Wood Nettle (Laportea canadensis) and Stinging Nettle (Urtica dioica)

Found: Bottomlands and along streams in shady areas.

Appearance: Perennial herb up to two feet tall with stiff hairs on the stem.

Things to Look For: Stiff hairs on the plant's stem. Each tiny hair on the stems and leaves is hollow with a jagged point at the end. A bump against the stiff hair squeezes an irritating acidic chemical through the hair and onto a passing person's skin, much like a hypodermic needle.

The acid in the hairs, formic acid, is the same substance that many ants secrete to protect themselves from predators. In the Stinging Nettle, it's pressurized so that it bursts out the instant the sharp hairs make contact with skin. The acid quickly spreads into the nearby human skin cells, causing them to swell. A rash appears on the surface of the skin and small white spots develop.

Treatment if Exposed: Apply lotions with an anti-inflammatory and cooling effects (talc, calamine). Home remedies include to rub the irritated area with juice of dock (Rumex spp.) or Jewelweed (Impatiens capensis). Since the source of the irritation is an acid, it can also be neutralized by applying a base. Baking soda mixed with water works particularly well.

Human Reaction: Rash and dermatitis with an intense burning sensation due to allergic reaction.

Ticks & Tick Borne Diseases

For many people, finding a tick latched onto their leg is enough to put a damper on a trip to the woods. It's like finding a mouse in the cubbard or a roach in your bed sheets, and leaves you feeling unaccountably paranoid. With recent publicity given to the threat of Lyme disease, people's fears have intensified and some are actually afraid to visit the forest.

Tick Demographics

Weather conditions seem to have the greatest effect on the density of ticks. After a mild winter tick populations are especially high. Ticks are worse in early spring when adults who have over-wintered start moving around looking for a host to feed on. Eggs from the previous year begin to hatch as well.

Ticks are not particularly choosy about their hosts. Any warm-blooded host will do. They climb up in brush and wait for a host to happen by. They attach themselves to the host and suck the host's blood, feeding only until they're full (6-13 days), then drop off and lay eggs. Incredibly, some ticks can survive up to two years between feedings.

A female tick lays from 4,000-6,000 eggs. After the eggs hatch, the tiny larvae or seed ticks, find hosts and feed just as the adults do. The larvae of some types of ticks are almost invisible to the human eye but literally hundreds can feed on one person resulting in painful itching and in some people, an allergic reaction. In most species, the larvae feed only on small mammals and are not a problem for humans.

There are over 300 species of ticks. Different species carry different diseases. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Lyme Disease are two of the better known diseases spread by ticks. Some diseases, such as Lyme Disease may effect pets and livestock as well as people.

Avoiding Ticks

Ticks are going to congregate where they have a high chance of finding a host or where they hatched out as larvae. Any high traffic area should be avoided, including cow paths in pastures and deer paths in the woods. Also avoid tall grass and thick brush. If your pets roam into areas where they are likely to pick up ticks, routinely check them for ticks and use baths, dips, and flea and tick collars to reduce the chances of your pets bringing ticks into your home and yard.

Several commercial insect repellants work quite well. Insure the repellant has the ingredient DEET or PERMETHRIN which is most effective on ticks. In areas of high tick infestation, you'll need to apply it every 2-3 hours. Another proven method of repelling ticks is to sprinkle sulphur on your socks, boots, and pant legs.

Tieing or taping your pant legs tight around your ankles so the ticks can't crawl up inside your pants and tucking in your shirt is also recommended. It won't cut down on the number of ticks you might get, but it will make them easier to spot and remove. Another suggestion is to wear light colored clothing which make the ticks easier to spot. Be sure and wash all clothing promptly to kill any ticks that might remain.

Visitors to recreation areas are also encouraged to stay on mowed trails where the chance of picking up ticks is much less.

Diseases carried by Ticks

Once embedded, the recommended method of removing the tick is to pull it straight out with tweezers. Grasp the tick close to its head with tweezers and pull firmly. Apply antiseptic to the bite. Removing a tick within 36 hours of when it becomes embedded will lessen the chance of disease transmission.

You may wish to keep the tick for a few weeks in a vial labeled with the date and location of the bite. If medical attention is later sought, the type of tick has some bearing on the type of disease it might be carrying. For instance, it is the deer tick, much smaller than other common ticks, which is usually associated with Lyme disease. Deer ticks are mahogany brown, oval shaped, and appear to have two separate plates on their backs. Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is carried by the Lone Star tick which is a round dark brown tick with a distinctive white mark on its back.

According to some researchers, "Lyme hysteria is vastly a bigger problem than Lyme disease". This may be true, but we recommend people be aware of the disease's symptoms. Several cases have been documented in Kentucky. Two other diseases, ehrlichiosis and babesiosis have also been diagnosed which have symptoms very similar to Lyme Disease and are easily treated. If the bite looks suspicious, you should see your local physician.

Symptoms of Lyme Disease include

  • a red or pink rash, or a bump near the area bitten which expands in size and may become as large as 10-15 inches in diameter.
  • fever, chills, headache, and fatique
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • stiff joints - particularly the knees

If these symptoms are present, a physician should be consulted immediately. Lyme disease can be confirmed by a blood test and progression of the disease can be prevented by proper treatment.