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Safe Travels! General Vacation Safety



  • Never take a vacation from safety.
  • Keep medications up high and out of sight of children, even on vacation!
  • There are many potential poisons depending on the place you travel. Be familiar with them before you travel there.
  • Call the Poison Helpline if there is an exposure, no matter where your travels take you.

Vacations are a time for relaxation and taking a break from the daily grind.  Thoughts of safety often take a back seat while the adults are busy packing, but while the routine of daily life is suspended, a toddler’s curious nature and need to explore their environment remains the same.  Medication and personal care products normally kept out of reach become easily accessible during the packing and unpacking process.  In addition, child resistant medication bottles might be exchanged for easily opened items such as plastic baggies and zippered totes.  Before you make these common mistakes, read on! 

Medication safety guidelines need to be followed all the time.  Medications should be the last item packed, and the first item unpacked, that leaves less time for an accident to happen.  Even while traveling, child resistant containers must be used, and as always medications need to be stored  “Up High AND Out of Sight”.  It is also a good idea when traveling with small children to get in the habit of inspecting the hotel room or vacation rental for any medications left by the previous occupants or stray pills on the floor not found by housekeeping.  Lastly, have some fun, this is your vacation time and you have earned it!  Be sure to have the toll free phone number to the poison center programmed into your phone 1-800-222-1222 just in case the unexpected happens.  That number works outside of Missouri too!

Beach Vacation

Living in the Midwest has its benefits, but a downside is there is no ocean to enjoy, which is why so many Missouri residents choose the beach as their vacation destination.  While the beaches and the ocean are beautiful, there are some hazards unique to this area not found in everyday Missouri life.  Water-related calls to Florida’s poison center involve vertebrate fish stings from lionfish, stonefish, and sea urchins, and invertebrate stings from jellyfish, coral, Portuguese man o’ war and anemones.   There are also health risks when the “Red Tide” is in the area, prompting questions about the safety of swimming in the ocean or eating the shellfish caught during the red tide.

Vertebrate Fish Stings:  Lionfish, stonefish and urchins are just a few of the many different sea creatures found off the coast.  They all have spines that contain venom.  When handled or inadvertently stepped on they cause a painful puncture wound.  Sometimes portions of the spines are left embedded in the wound.  There can be vomiting, diarrhea, fever, muscle cramping, and weakness, with risk for infection and allergic reaction.  First aid includes soaking the body part in hot, soapy water for 30-90 minutes to inactivate the venom (no ice or cold water!).  The victim should be brought to an emergency room to remove any spines and treat severe symptoms; be sure they are also up-to-date on their tetanus vaccination.

Invertebrate Stings:  Jellyfish stings are often the most dreaded by Midwest vacationers.  All species of jellyfish have tentacles and can sting you while in the water.  The sting causes immediate pain, redness and raised welts to the stung area.  First aid measures are to rinse the sting site with ocean water (do not use fresh water) or if vinegar is available soak the area in vinegar for at least 30 seconds.  (Contrary to current thought, urinating on the sting is NOT recommended). The ocean water or vinegar will help to halt the unfired stinging cells left on the surface of the skin after tentacle contact.  Protect the stung area, do not rub sand in, or apply any pressure to the area.  Soaking the area in hot water (not scalding) for 20-40 minutes is recommended.  If there is any sign of an allergic reaction or a faint feeling, it is best to head immediately to an emergency room or an Urgent Care Center.  If there is a lifeguard on duty, they can help with first aid to provide some comfort from the pain.

Red tide: The term “Red Tide” refers to harmful algal blooms (HABs) that can be present in both the sea and fresh water systems.  It happens from uncontrolled growth of certain plants.  They produce harmful algal blooms which can result in toxic effects on people, fish, shellfish, marine mammals and birds.  Not all algal blooms are harmful, most in fact are beneficial because they are the food and energy source for ocean life.  Some people may experience respiratory symptoms such as coughing, sneezing and an itchy throat due to the microscopic algae of the red tide being blown onshore.  Individuals most at risk are those with underlying chronic respiratory illnesses such as asthma and COPD.  Limiting your outdoor activities near a “red tide zone”, using the air conditioner and keeping windows closed both at home and in the car will help prevents symptoms. Swimming is safe for most people, but if you notice dead fish in the area avoid swimming.  Once you are done swimming, change out of your swim clothes and thoroughly shower right away.  Eating seafood at a restaurant or buying from a market is safe because the shellfish are monitored by the government during the red tide for safety.

Lake Vacation & Camping

Blue-green algae:  Many people love to vacation in the great outdoors, many times camping near a fresh-water lake or river.  These bodies of water also have harmful algal blooms (HABs), also referred to as blue-green algae.  This algae is called a cyanobacteria that can sicken people through the toxic substance (cyanotoxins) they produce.  It makes the water look like pea soup; it is green, slimy and foul smelling.  The appearance and smell of the algae makes it easy to see that the water is unsafe for swimming and playing.  High-speed water activities should be avoided in algae water due to the possibility of water splashing into the face, eyes and mouth.  Exposure to cyanotoxins causes rashes, itching, headache, vomiting and diarrhea that can develop within hours of exposure.  Severe poisoning is rare, but children are most at risk.  Even if they do not enter the water, boating and playing at the shoreline can cause illness because of a child’s tendency to put their hands and other objects into their mouths.

Camping:  Camping is a fun way to get away and relax.  Before you go, it is wise to educate yourself to avoid poisoning risks:

  • Food poisoning:  Food should be packed in tight, waterproof containers and kept in an insulated cooler.  Raw foods and cooked foods need to be stored separately, and cooked foods should be chilled promptly after meal time is done.  It is best to wash hands and surfaces often. 
  • Bug bites:  Prevent bug bites and ticks by using a DEET containing insect repellant. Wear long sleeves, pants, and light-colored clothing to help prevent insect bites and ticks.  Consider clothing treated with permethrin as an extra precaution against ticks.  Check for ticks daily on yourself and your children; the longer a tick is attached to your body, the greater the risk for transmission of disease.
  • Snakes:  Familiarize yourself with the snakes native to the camping area. The cottonmouth is the only venomous snake that lives in or near the water.  They swim in the water with their head and part of their upper body out of the water, and lounge near the water’s edge. In contrast, non-venomous water snakes are commonly found hanging out in tree branches.  Pit vipers, such as the copperhead, are found on the ground and have triangular shaped head, cat like pupils and pits or holes between the eyes and nostrils.  These snakes are not aggressive towards people but if one is encountered it is best to step away and leave the snake alone.
  • Carbon monoxide:  Fuel-burning equipment such as lanterns, gas stoves, and charcoal grills should never be used inside or near your tent or camper. If you are camping in cooler temperatures, any heat source used needs to be kept well outside of the tent.  If your vacation includes boating, be sure any people floating in the water are a safe distance from the idling engine where dangerous levels of CO can accumulate.
  • Other Precautions:  Since many of the reptiles and wildlife like to hide in dark places, you should never just get into your sleeping bag or put on your shoes without a good shaking and turning upside down first.  This will help to avoid an unpleasant encounter with the uninvited guest.

Desert Southwest

Rattle snakes:  This area of the country is home to a snake with one of the worst reputations: the venomous rattlesnake.  Rattlesnakes will shake their rattle as a warning to its victim and are able to strike out to bite with lightning speed.  Arizona has 17 different types of rattlesnakes, each with complex venom that can vary greatly between the different species in make-up and potency.  No matter the species, a rattlesnake bite is a medical emergency which requires prompt medical attention. If left untreated there can be severe problems ranging from tissue damage to abnormal bleeding.  Because of modern medical resources now available, deaths from snake bites are rare.

Scorpions:  The Southwest is also home to over 90 species of scorpions. Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas have the highest number of scorpions. Scorpions are inactive and hide during the heat of the day, under stones, and in the crevices found in trees, homes and rocks.  The sting of a scorpion can cause immediate pain, sensitivity to touch, and a numbness and tingling sensation.  There is usually little swelling. Scorpion stings are painful but rarely life-threatening.  Healthy adults typically do not need treatment for stings but children and the elderly may have more serious effects from the same amount of venom and may require medical attention.

Taking precautions will greatly reduce the possibility of a snake bite, scorpion stings or encounters with other wild animals.

  • Season and time of day:  Be aware, reptiles are most active during the night hours during the warmer months from April through October in the southwest United States.
  • Be aware of where you are putting your hands and feet:  Be cautious while hiking, especially around large rocks or logs, do not hike through tall grass where there is limited visibility. Wear long pants and protective shoes or boots, and use a walking stick while hiking to poke at the ground in front of you to scare away snakes.  Do not place your hands under rocks or logs; tap the top of logs before stepping over them to scare off any reptiles and keep your feet and hands out of crevices found in rocks and trees.  Finally, inspect any area before you sit down, what an unpleasant surprise you might get if a biting or stinging reptile was there first.
  • Light your path:  What you don’t see might hurt you!  Limit the time you walk outdoors at night, but if you do walk at night, be sure to wear protective footwear and use a good quality flashlight to light the way.
  • Dead snakes can bite:  Leave wild animals alone, even dead ones.  Never handle a snake, even if you think it is dead because recently killed snakes may still bite and inject venom by reflex.  Most bites by animals in the wild are a result of being provoked by humans.  This could be an act to help the animal such as attempting to give it some food or trying to hold it, but from the animals point of view being approached by a human is an aggressive action that causes them to defend themselves. Never try to catch or pick up wild animals, period.
  • Use the buddy system:  If you are hiking in an area where it is known to have snakes, go with a friend, just in case.  You should also have a fully charged mobile phone, and try to stay in areas where your phone gets a signal.

For any questions or concerns about possible summer vacation hazards, call the Poison Help line at 1-800-222-1222. Specially trained nurses and pharmacists are available 24/7/365 to answer your questions. The service is free and confidential.

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