Probably more than at any other time in our history, if you want to stay in the game, you have to stay healthy. Today, we face threats our ancestors never even thought of. There’s bio-terrorism, the threat of nuclear war and weapons of mass destruction—to name just a few. Then, there are environmental issues on a mass scale. And last, but not least, there are viruses for which there’s no cure. We clearly have our hands full.
You don’t have to go very far back in time to find ancestors who had no vehicles. They had to walk or run everywhere they went. This kept their bodies in shape. They didn’t sustain themselves on processed foods (which poison our bodies), and they didn’t have as much leisure time as we do.
Over time, their bodies built up immunities that we, in our overindulgence of antibiotics and heightened avoidance of germs, seem to have lost. Above all, they tried to keep themselves away from things that could possibly kill them.
We now spend too much time treating injuries and illnesses instead of preventing the issues in the first place. We don’t have the labor-intensive jobs that would keep our bodies physically sharp and help us stay healthy.
Instead, we toil in a cubicle sitting in front of a computer for eight hours or more every day. Over time, this equates to self-destruction.
Another thing we have going against us is where and how we live. Most of the world’s population is located either in cities or very close to them in dense suburbs.
Our proximity and interaction with hundreds, if not thousands, of people every day and widespread travel create a breeding ground for illness and troublesome diseases—and encourage their spread.
The question is, How can we prevent some of these issues and stay healthy?
While some injuries and illnesses will happen—no matter how hard we try to prevent them—most are preventable. Sometimes, it’s the lack of knowledge; in other cases, it’s pure carelessness.
Perhaps we have an “it will never happen to me” attitude or we take risks that shouldn’t be taken. The news is full of stories about people coming down with illnesses that were once considered long eradicated, simply because they failed to get vaccinated.
A sprained ankle, broken bone, frostbite or cutting yourself with a knife are just some examples of common injuries. Some of these can be prevented by just slowing down, remembering the basics and thinking things through. We all get complacent and skip steps. If you do this, you’re asking for trouble.
Injuries can also happen because we’re wearing the wrong clothing for the environment. In a cold environment, improper clothing can lead to frostbite or exposure.
Similarly, extended exposure to sunlight and UV radiation can burn your skin, harm your eyes and cause sunstroke. Wearing improper footwear can lead to blisters, sprained ankles and other foot, leg and back issues. Still more injuries can be prevented by proper exercise and diet.
Growing your own food and working in the garden will help you stay healthy. In addition, a proper diet is important to overall wellness.
There are a couple sayings I live by. One is “You are what you eat”; the other is “Put junk in, get junk out.” Eating properly will help you keep your body in check. A proper diet keeps your mind sharp and your body strong. If your mind is sharp, your ability to think through issues will keep you safe.
Maybe you’ll think twice about wearing flip-flops on a mountain trail, or maybe you won’t skip a safety step when sharpening that knife.
A hike through this lava field in Hawaii is full of places where one can turn an ankle —or worse. Make sure you wear the proper footwear.
Along with diet, proper exercise will help keep injuries from happening. You don’t have to spend hours in the gym to stay in good physical shape. Even if you work in a cubicle all day, you can get up and take a brisk walk during your breaks.
Working outside, splitting wood or tending a garden—without power tools—is great exercise. The more active you are, the stronger and more flexible your body will be. All of this will help to prevent injuries.
Other sayings also apply here, such as “Clothing makes the man” and “Dress for success.” In a survival situation, the proper clothing can do everything from protecting you from the elements to supporting your body from potential injury.
Clothing can also protect you from other threats, such as biting insects and reptiles, as well as the sap from toxic plants you might come into contact with.
Illnesses are much harder to prevent, but there are steps that you can—and should—take to improve your chances. If you have school-aged children, or you come into contact with a lot of people on a regular basis, you’ll be more likely to be exposed to pathogens that cause a variety of illnesses. However, there are some very simple ways you can cut down on your chances of becoming ill.
Proper hygiene is the easiest and most effective method of staying well; all health professionals agree on this. They’re always saying, “Wash your hands,” and for good reason.
Germs of all sorts can be transmitted from surfaces you touch every day. Doorknobs are big culprits, but things such as the handle of your axe or the stock of your rifle are potential toxic surfaces as well.
While your skin will protect you from most of them (unless you have an open cut), it’s what happens after the initial contact that you need to be concerned about. If you get these germs on your hands and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth—or, worse yet, food—there’s a good chance you’ll eventually catch something.
Even if you don’t become ill from a contaminant, you can still easily spread it to others. Soap and water go a long way toward combating these threats. Good hygiene is often your best line of defense.
Build Up Your Immunity
Building up your immunity—in part by exposure to many of the things that can make you ill—makes you safer and healthier over time. There’s no set formula for managing this natural process, but it helps to understand that you aren’t helping yourself in the long run by constantly sanitizing everything you come into contact with.
In addition, there are certain foods and practices that can naturally enhance and strengthen your immune system.
Vaccines are another way of bettering your chances of staying healthy. Modern medicine has all but eliminated many diseases that plagued humankind in the past. It’s not that these diseases aren’t still with us; it’s that vaccines keep us from getting them.
The only way for vaccines to work is to make sure you keep them up to date. Sadly, there are some people who, for whatever reason, don’t get vaccinated. Not only does that endanger them, it puts the rest of us at risk as well.
Other Outside Threats
You exercise, eat well and practice good hygiene, so that means you’re out of the woods, right? Wrong! There are other things out there that can—if they don’t kill you outright—make you very sick. I’m talking about biting insects, reptiles and toxic plants.
Your best line of defense is to avoid areas where these threats exist, but we all know that’s nearly impossible. That means you need to take precautions to limit your exposure. These precautions include preventives you can apply to your skin or clothing, as well as wearing the proper clothing for the environment.
No matter how well you dress, there are bound to be openings that expose your skin to attack. Any one of these exposed areas will leave you vulnerable to biting and stinging insects.
The best way to combat them is by applying topical protection barriers to both your skin and your clothes. There are many available, and they all work (to a certain degree).
Some of these are made from all-natural ingredients but, for the most part, many of the most effective commercially available products contain DEET. DEET is a chemical that’s been found to repel both ticks and mosquitoes. However, there are also drawbacks to using DEET (see the DEET, Picaridin and Permethrin sidebar below).
Mosquitoes and ticks transmit a host of diseases, and wasps, hornets, scorpions and spiders all present venom hazards. Everyone reacts differently when bitten or stung by one of these critters.
The key is to limit the amount of exposed skin you give them. If you offer them an opening, they’ll take it. In tick-prone areas, wear boots and tuck your pants into them. Wear long-sleeved shirts and keep the cuffs buttoned (this also applies to combating mosquitoes).
Certain colors seem to attract more attention, so stick to light, natural colors in mosquito areas and darker colors in tick areas.
If you’re in venomous snake country, wear good, thick leather boots. The best boots go up to around your calves. Alternatively, use snake chaps. Always watch where you place your feet and hands.
Because most snakes would rather get away from you, most snake incidents happen when a snake is surprised or feels threatened. When in snake country, it’s a good idea to tap the ground with a stick to let snakes know you’re in the area and give them a chance to move away.
Toxic plants don’t bite or sting. Instead, they transmit their toxin by contact. Of all the toxic plants, poison ivy is probably the most common, being found just about everywhere in the United States.
This plant can be found as ground cover, a bush or vine. It grows in the woods, fields, around stone walls and even in the shrubs common in residential areas, thus making it hard to avoid. As with all toxic plants, the key is not to get any of the plant’s sap or fluid on your skin.
An Ounce of Prevention
There’s no perfect solution to avoiding injury or illness. We’ll all get hurt and sick at some point.
The key to good health is prevention. In a survival situation, taking a proactive position is much better than a reactive one. Take care of yourself now, and it’ll pay off in the long run.
DEET, Picaridin and Permethrin
DEET, Picaridin and Permethrin are the three most common man-made insecticides used in commercial insect repellents. So just what are those ingredients and how do they work?
Of all of the chemicals, DEET is the most widely used and it is familiar to most people. Originally developed in the 1940’s for use by the U.S. military, DEET has been found to repel mosquitoes, ticks, chiggers biting flies and other insects. As effective as DEET is, it does have some drawbacks.
For some people the use of DEET has caused skin irritations, pain, watery eyes and nausea. Because of possible side effects it is not recommended that children under two months of age be exposed to DEET.
There are also concerns that DEET may cause cancer but, according to the EPA, there is not enough evidence to say whether or not this is true. Higher concentrations of DEET are longer lasting, not more effective. Also, DEET can damage certain plastics and other synthetics found in clothing and gear commonly used in the outdoors.
Picaridin is a synthetic compound first made in the 1980s which is made to resemble the natural compound piperine, which is found in the group of plants used to make black pepper.
It does not kill insects, but it does make them less likely to bite. Found in pump sprays, liquids, aerosols or in wipes, the product is safe to use on both clothing and skin. It is effective for biting flies, ticks, fleas, chiggers and mosquitoes.
Permethrin is a synthetic insecticide that was first registered with the U.S. EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) in 1979. While used on farm animals and in mosquito control it is not recommended to use this product on your skin.
Permethrin affects the nervous system in insects and while it is more toxic to insects, it can have adverse effects on people if not used correctly. Permethrin products come in liquids and aerosol sprays. It is most commonly used to treat clothing, tents and other outdoor gear.
As in all situations when applying something to your skin, clothing or gear, carefully read and follow the instructions on the container and consult a physician if you encounter any problems.
For those who want to stay away from synthetic chemicals there are all-natural repellents on the market. These products are safe to use on children and pets. While they do work, they also have their own drawbacks. Some do not work on all biting insects and they need to be constantly reapplied. Most natural repellents come only in pump sprays.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the August, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide magazine.
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