With the end of winter and the start of spring comes warmer weather, blooming flowers, and peak hiking season. While you should absolutely enjoy the trails, be sure to keep an eye out for some dangers the warmer weather brings: poisonous plants, fungi, insects, and arachnids all pose some significant dangers to hikers. The best thing that you can do to stay safe is to keep an eye out for these dangers and prevent poisoning in the first place, but if you do come into contact with any of the items on this list, immediately take a picture of what you came into contact with and call the Poison Control Center at 1-800-222-1222.
Learn to Avoid Poisonous Plants
One of the best parts about hiking in the spring and summer is all of the freshly bloomed wildflowers. While most of these pose little to no risk, there are certainly a few that you should take caution to avoid. Many of these, according to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), contain one of three chemical compounds: solanine, grayanotoxins, or cardiac glycosides.
Solanine: Large quantities of solanine are known to cause drowsiness, sweating, and changes in blood pressure. It also causes diarrhea, which typically lasts between three to six days. Common plants that contain solanine include Jerusalem cherry, nightshade, potato sprouts, and unripe tomatoes.
Grayanotoxins: Have the most immediate side effects, which, when eaten, include burning, numbness, and tingling of the mouth. After two to three hours the affected person will likely start to feel nauseous, will begin sweating and vomiting, and will experience confusion and a slowed heart rate. There have also been reports of seizures. Grayanotoxins are most commonly found in lambkill, mountain laurel, rhododendron, and azalea.
Glyosides: The final toxin, cardiac glycosides, typically cause headaches, confusion, dizziness, vomiting, and stomach pain, with later symptoms including effects on both heart rate and blood pressure. Cardiac glycosides are found in foxglove, lily-of-the-valley, oleander, and squil.
In addition, plants such as poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, all contain a compound called urushiol, which is what makes you break out in hives and rashes when you come into contact with them.
Plants to avoid on trails include (but are of course not limited to):
- Poison Ivy – Found in every U.S. state east of the Rockies, poison ivy is the most well-known plant on this list. As the saying goes, “Leaves of three, let it be.”
- Poison Oak – Found primarily in western North America, poison oak tends to like conifer and mixed broadleaf forests, woodlands, and grasslands. They have three lobed, waxy, oak-like leaves (hence the name) that range in color from green to bright red depending on the season.
- Poison Sumac – A small tree, poison sumac is typically found in eastern U.S. and Canada. It likes to inhabit wetlands like swamps, bogs, and marshes and, like the two plants above, it contains urushiol and will cause you to break out in rashes upon contact.
- Giant Hogweed – An invasive species in the U.S. native to the Caucasus Mountains in Asia, the giant hogweed is a massive, hairy plant that can grow as tall as 14-feet and has huge white flowers. Touching the sap will cause dark, blistered patches far nastier than those caused by poison ivy, oak, or sumac.
- Nettles – The two most common types of nettles are the wood nettle and its meaner cousin, the stinging nettle. Both plants are weeds that grow between two to four feet tall, with the wood nettle having light green stems and dark green, serrated leaves. The stinging nettle has small white flowers. Both are covered in small hairs (nettles) that cause pain, burning, itching, and blisters when touched.
- Mountain Laurel – Containing both grayanotoxin and arbutin, the mountain laurel is a broadleaf shrub that can be identified by its white and pink flowers. The entire plant is highly toxic and has been known to cause difficulty breathing, anorexia (loss of appetite), cardiac distress, depression, vomiting, weakness, convulsions, paralysis, coma, and death from gastrointestinal hemorrhage.
Also common during the warmer months, especially if you like to hike in dense woods, are different fungi and mushrooms. Unless you are trained to identify the various species of fungi, under no circumstance should you attempt to forage and eat them as that is how most accidental poisonings occur. Some common mushrooms to look out for include:
- Conocybe Filaris – Common in the Pacific Northwest, this mushroom can be identified by its thin stalk and reddish-brown cap. It causes gastrointestinal problems that occur about 6 – 24 hours after being eaten. It is also not unheard of for it to cause liver and kidney failure, both of which can lead to death.
- Webcaps – Found all over both Europe and North America, the two species of webcap (deadly webcap and fools’ webcap) are both short, tan mushrooms with a webbed under-cap. Symptoms initially resemble the common flu but approximately two days to three weeks later, kidney failure may occur.
- Autumn Skullcap – A light brown, gilled, wood-rotting mushroom, the autumn skullcap is common all over the Northern hemisphere and even parts of Australia. It causes diarrhea, vomiting, hypothermia, and liver damage and can be fatal if left untreated.
- Destroying Angels – Similar in appearance to the edible button and meadow mushrooms, the destroying angels are actually several species of all-white mushrooms that fall under the genus Amanita. The most deadly member of the family, the Amanita bisporigera, is considered the most toxic mushroom in North America and can cause vomiting, delirium, convulsions, diarrhea, liver and kidney failure, and often leads to death.
Protect Yourself from Insects and Arachnids
Beyond plants and mushrooms, also be sure to stay safe when it comes to insects and arachnids. As the most dangerous insects are mosquitoes, understanding how to properly use repellents is crucial to having a safe (and far less annoying) hiking experience. The EPA tells us to always follow the instructions on the label and to only apply the repellents to any exposed skin and clothing. Do not use your chosen repellent near your eyes or mouth and use it sparingly around your ears. Similarly, never spray a repellent directly onto your face, instead, spray it into your hands and then rub it onto your face that way. Do not let children apply their own repellent and never use repellents containing oil of lemon eucalyptus on children below the age of three. Finally, be sure to always wash any treated skin and clothes when you get back inside.
But what about the insects that aren’t affected by repellents? Just because your repellent will keep those mosquitoes at bay doesn’t mean you don’t have to watch out for other creepy-crawlies. When you’re out exploring nature, keep your eyes peeled for these bugs and arachnids:
- Africanized Honeybee – Africanized honeybees are similar to normal honeybees except that they travel in swarms rather than individually or in small groups. While they don’t usually attack without provocation, they are especially dangerous to people with bee allergies.
- Wasps – Similar in appearance to the honeybee, wasps are more slender and have a shiny body. They also do not lose their stinger after attacking, allowing them to sting their victim multiple times.
- Fire Ants – An invasive species brought to the U.S. by way of South America, the fire ant can be found all over the country.
- Ticks – Prevalent throughout all of North America, ticks like to hide in tall grass where they can easily attach themselves to a host. Always do a full body check after you have spent any time outdoors, as ticks can carry Lyme disease. If you find the tick within 36 hours, your chances of contracting Lyme disease are significantly lower.
- Black Widows – Although not often fatal, the female black widow’s venom is 15 times stronger than that of a rattlesnake. They can be identified by their small black body and the red hourglass on their belly.
- Tarantulas – With some species growing over a foot long, the tarantula is usually fairly easy to spot. Their venom is not deadly to humans but is still unpleasant nonetheless and can cause pain and rashes around the area bitten.
- Brown Recluse – Native to the midwestern and southern U.S., the brown recluse can be identified by its long brownish tan to yellow body. While they usually only bite if provoked, they can be deadly to young children and pets.
- Scorpions – If you’re hiking in warm, dry climates always be on the lookout for scorpions and be sure to always check shoes, blankets, and towels before using them. The most dangerous scorpion in the U.S. and Mexico is the Arizona Bark Scorpion, whose venom can cause severe pain, numbness, tingling, vomiting, temporary dysfunction, and (rarely) death. In addition to its venom, scorpions also have pincers to watch out for.
If you, your child, family member, or pet come into contact with poisonous plants, fungi, or venomous insects, immediately take a picture of what they came into contact with and call the Poison Control Center as soon as possible at 1-800-222-1222. Describe to your operator exactly what happened, including when the affected person came into contact with the plant/mushroom/insect, how much (if any) they ate, and what parts.
Also, check out this article too, “Outdoor Safety for Families: How to Keep Your Kids Safe From Poisonous Plants and Pesticides This Spring”