How to Avoid the Pitfalls of Memorial Day

Last Editorial Review: 5/17/2005

From light eating to the No. 1 beach danger, here are tips to making your Memorial Day healthy and safe.

By Heather Hatfield
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith

After months of patiently waiting, it's finally here: the sizzling hot days of summer. With summer serving as the unofficial start to the celebrated season of sun, you want to make sure it's as healthy and safe for you and your family as possible.

From traffic safety to diet reminders, here are tips experts gave WebMD that will have you starting your summer off on the right flip-flop.

The Season of BBQs

Summer is synonymous with barbecues: hamburgers, hot dogs, potato salad, and ice cream. But does the start of summer mean the end of your healthy diet and bathing-suit ready figure? It doesn't have to, an expert from the American Dietetic Association tells WebMD, and she recommends you start by taking advantage of the healthy foods that are in season.

"Enjoy plenty of fruits and veggies, which are fresh and delicious and starting to be more abundant by summer weekend," says Lola O'Rourke, a registered dietitian in Seattle. "If you're grilling, cook a veggie kabob as part of the meal."

Then, the trick is to eat the veggie kabob first, so you take the hunger-edge off before digging into the more diet-dangerous foods, such as burgers and chips.

"When it comes to burgers, they can be enjoyed, but keep portion size moderate," says O'Rourke, who is a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. "Similarly with chips, watch portion size and choose baked chips if you can."

And when you do indulge in that burger, balance it out with some exercise.

"I think that it's important to remember that it's a balance of calories and physical activity," says O'Rourke. "If you want to have chips and a burger on summer weekend, incorporate some physical activity into the weekend to balance it out -- it's a great time to get outside and physical activity really is a key part of managing weight and staying healthy."

Hitting the Road

With millions of people starting the summer season by taking a road trip, the AAA recommends keeping these travel tips in mind:

  • Buckle up for safety -- and to avoid that ticket. "Buckle up and make sure that kids are properly secured in child safety seats," says McNaull. "These simple steps greatly increase your odds of surviving and reducing injuries if a crash happens." You can also avoid getting a ticket.
  • Get a good night's sleep. "Drowsy drivers can be as dangerous as drunk drivers, committing many of the same mistakes behind the wheel," says McNaull, who was a police officer with the Arlington County police department in Virginia for six years. "Be sure to get a good night's sleep before you take a long road trip."

    And don't think that a cup of coffee or open windows will substitute for sleep.

    "If you feel yourself getting drowsy, take a break," says McNaull. "Getting out of the car for some exercise or a caffeinated drink can buy you a couple minutes of alertness, but are not substitutes for sleep."

  • Don't drink and drive.
  • Do a pre-road trip checkup. "Taking 10 minutes to ensure that your car's tires are properly inflated, that the fluids are topped off, and everything under the hood looks all right, can identify problems that could lead to breakdowns during your trip," says McNaull. "Breakdowns can put a damper on your vacation schedule and budget, plus leave you stuck on the side of the road -- a potentially dangerous place to be."

Summer Safety for Kids

For kids, parents need to keep a few essentials in mind for the summer, starting with SPF.

"For summer safety, you need to avoid sunburn and use good sun protection," says Jeffrey Weiss, MD, head of general pediatrics at Phoenix Children's Hospital in Arizona. "I think for most kids, the recommendation is at least SPF 25."

Another tip for the summer is to make sure your kids are properly buckled up.

"Parents should be reminded to put their kids in appropriate car seats," says Weiss, who is also a spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics.

For kids aged 4-8, that means positioning booster seats -- something a lot of parents aren't even aware exist.

"A lot of parents are putting their kids in that age range in adult seat belts when the kids aren't really ready for them," says Weiss. "Positioning seats are glorified phone books -- they raise the child up so the shoulder harness properly crosses the chest and the lap belt properly crosses the pelvic bone."

Weiss also reminds parents of these summer safety tips:

  • Lifeguards are a must. "If you're going to be around water, lakes, or pools with your kids, make sure there is a lifeguard around," says Weiss. "Identify an adult or a responsible teenager who is assigned to do nothing other than watch the kids around the water."
  • Use lifejackets when boating. Weiss echoes the sentiment of the American Boating Association: "Make sure you have a life vest that is appropriate for your child's age."
  • Never leave your child alone in the car. "Your car can get up to baking hot temperatures in just a few minutes in warm weather -- even with the window open a crack," says Weiss. "The message is a child should never be left alone in a car, even for a few minutes."

Rip Currents: No. 1 Beach Danger

What is responsible for eight out of 10 beach drownings? The answer: rip currents. This is common on many U.S. beaches -- even in shallow water, says Richard E. Gould, parks director for the Santa Clarita, Calif., and national statistics coordinator for the U.S. Lifesaving Association. They're often misnamed rip tides or undertows. But they aren't tides, and they don't pull you under water.

It starts on a windy day, usually before or after a storm. Winds blow up waves that crash over a near-shore sandbar. Gravity pulls the water back to sea, but more waves -- and the sandbar -- keep it from flowing out. Eventually, tons of water flow sideways along the shore. This is called a longshore current. If you've ever gone swimming and found yourself pulled far from your blanket on the beach, you've been in a longshore current.

But sooner or later, all that water has to go somewhere, says B. Chris Brewster, retired San Diego lifeguard chief and national certification committee chair for the U.S. Lifesaving Association. Brewster is widely regarded as an expert on rip currents.

"Surf pushes water inside the sandbar, and once pressure builds up there is a collapse of the sandbar," Brewster tells WebMD. "What makes this particularly dangerous is that people inside the sandbar have this sense of calm. They seem to be sheltered from most of the wave turbulence. They are often waders who get sucked out through the sandbar like it was a toilet flushing."

When there's a break in the sandbar, the longshore currents head out to sea. As they funnel through the break, they get incredibly strong. This is a rip current. It can flow as fast as 5 mph -- faster than an Olympic swimmer and stronger than the strongest man on earth. Contrary to popular belief, someone caught in a rip current isn't pulled under water. And it won't flow to France -- the rip current dissipates just beyond the breakers. But it's still a killer.

"When you're at the beach, rip currents are the most important thing you need to worry about," Gould tells WebMD. "If there's no lifeguard, it's not safe. Everything I've read suggests there's a significant rip current problem on the Florida Gulf coast -- but no lifeguards."

Ironically, when you're walking on the beach, rip currents look very inviting.

"Rip currents form underwater channels that you wouldn't be able to spot standing on the shore," Brewster says. "What you see is an area where the waves are less likely to break as quickly or as violently. So you walk along the shore and see this calm area. People tend to be attracted to those areas -- the most dangerous ones on the beach."

Surviving a Rip Current

As deadly as rip currents are, it's not that hard to survive one -- if you stay calm and know exactly what to do.

"To get out, just tread water and allow the rip current to carry you out -- they tend to dissipate outside the breaking surf," Brewster says. "Then you can wait for help, or swim around the rip current and back to shore. But few people have the calm to do this. Most drown because they swim against it and tire out."

So for most people, Brewster recommends swimming parallel to the shore. One doesn't have to be a very strong swimmer to do this. Rip currents aren't exactly narrow, but they are concentrated in one place. In a short while, most swimmers should be outside the current and able to make it back to shore.

Sometimes the rip current is diagonal to shore. If you try to swim parallel to shore but aren't making any progress, Brewster says, turn around and swim parallel to shore in the other direction. That should do the trick.

Saving Someone Caught in a Rip Current

Brewster literally put together the book on open-water lifesaving -- his text is used all over the world. Here's his advice on how to save someone caught in a rip current:

  • Toss something that floats to the person in trouble. Lifeguards use a rescue buoy. A life jacket would be the next choice, or any approved lifesaving device. If nothing is available, try anything buoyant. Brewster suggests tossing a sealed, watertight cooler if nothing else is available.
  • Toss a rope to the victim. This isn't as good as a something that floats, because a person panicking may not see -- or be able to reach -- a slippery line.
  • Coach the victim. Shout loudly so you can be heard above the surf. Try to get the victim to stay calm. Explain what is going on. Urge him or her NOT to fight toward shore, but to swim or wade parallel to shore.
  • Don't enter the water if you aren't a calm, confident, skilled swimmer. Even so, it's a VERY dangerous choice. "Whether to go in for a rescue is a very personal decision based on your ability and understanding of rip currents," Brewster says. "The reality is that many people in rescue attempts do drown each year. There is no value in having two people drown in an attempted save."
  • If you understand rip currents, and are a strong swimmer, you may decide to enter the water. It's best to have something that floats to hold on to. If not, a pair of swim fins can make it much easier to swim. DO NOT MAKE PHYSICAL CONTACT WITH THE VICTIM. A panicking person will pull a rescuer under water. "The worst-case scenario -- something lifeguards avoid like the plague -- is physical contact with the victim," Brewster says. Swim well out of reach of the victim. If you have a flotation device such as a boogie board or a rescue tube, get the victim to grab hold of one side. Do not let the victim grab you. Urge the victim to calm down and follow you as you swim parallel to shore.
  • Forming a human chain to reach the victim does NOT work, Brewster says. The people at the end of the chain will be in danger -- and if the chain breaks, several more people will be in trouble.

Boater's Paradise

As summer draws near, keep in mind that safety doesn't only apply to pavement.

"Before you go boating during the summer, plan ahead," says Amy Bednarcik, vice president of the American Boating Association. "Has your boat been properly spring commissioned -- has someone looked at all its components and made sure it is operational? Take the boat out for a test drive before summer to make sure it's working properly, and make sure your safety equipment is in good shape -- that the life preservers are fully functional and you have enough of them."

Like the open road, boating should not involve alcohol.

"The biggest thing is to not to drink and boat," says Bednarcik. "A lot of people equate boating with drinking, and studies show that half the fatalities that take place on the water happen because someone is under the influence."

Other tips from the ABA to ensure a safe summer boating excursion include:

  • File a float plan. "... lots of people take overnight trips on their boat or go offshore, and if you do that, you should file a float plan with someone from home," says Bednarcik. "Give them your cell phone number, tell them where you're going out of, where you plan to be, and when you're planning to be back so if they don't hear from you, they can notify the proper authorities."
  • Keep your eyes on the water and the weather. "Watch for swimmers and water skiers, and submerged objects," says Bednarcik. "And watch the weather -- plan ahead so you have a spot to take cover if a storm hits quickly."

Originally published May 27, 2004.

Medically updated May 13, 2005.

SOURCES: Amy Bednarcik, vice president, American Boating Association, Harwich, Mass. Justin McNaull, spokesman, American Automobile Association, Arlington, Va. Lola O'Rourke, registered dietitian; spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association, Seattle. Jeffrey Weiss, MD, spokesman, American Academy of Pediatrics; head of general pediatrics, Phoenix Children's Hospital, Phoenix, Ariz. U.S. Coast Guard Office of Boating Safety.

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