Many families are counting down the days to unwind over spring break — from hitting the beach to exploring a new city or relaxing at home. It’s important to keep health and safety in mind, especially when traveling.

James Miner, MD, an emergency medicine physician with M Physicians and head of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the U of M Medical Schoo, talks about how families and young adults can stay safe while enjoying their spring break.

Q: How can families stay safe while playing at a pool or beach? 
Dr. Miner: Learning to swim is the best way to stay safe around the water. While it may be too late to start lessons before this spring break, consider contacting your local American Red Cross or community center in the future for boating and water safety courses. Wear a life jacket if you don't know how to swim or are not a strong swimmer.

It’s also important to remember that children require close supervision — always keep them in direct sightlines whenever they are in or around the water.

While all are fun, swimming in the ocean is trickier than swimming in a lake or pool because of waves, currents and tides. Waves and currents can knock you down or pull you into the water. If you are caught in a current, swim parallel to the shore rather than toward it until the water stops pulling you.

Know your limits. If you start feeling tired, get out of the water and rest.

Q: How can people protect their skin and stay safe in the sun? 
Dr. Miner: Heading to warm destinations for spring break can expose us to a lot more sun than we are used to in the winter. Stay protected from the sun by staying in the shade, like under an umbrella, or by keeping your skin covered with lightweight clothes. Wearing sunglasses with UV protection and wide-brimmed hats also helps protect your skin from harmful solar rays.

Always apply plenty of sunscreen before going outside — don’t forget that you can still get sunburned on a cloudy day. I recommend at least SPF 30 and reapplying every two hours. If you think you may be sunburned, you definitely are. Cover that skin and get out of the sun to prevent further damage.

Q: What should people know about safe drinking during spring break?
Dr. Miner: Consuming alcohol can impair decision-making. During spring break celebrations, people are often in unfamiliar places or situations and can't rely on routine decisions to stay safe. Be sure to track how much you are drinking and stay aware of your surroundings.

Other tips to keep in mind:

  • Know what you’re drinking. 
  • Don’t accept drinks from people you don’t know or trust. 
  • Don’t leave a drink unattended. You may also want to consider using a product to detect whether something has been added to your beverage. 
  • Know your limits and when to say no. 
  • Never drive or take part in an activity that requires close attention if you have been drinking.

Q: What if you find yourself in need of medical care while on vacation?
Dr. Miner: If you develop a medical problem at home, you don’t wait to see a health care provider; you shouldn't wait while you are on vacation. Often this means finding an urgent care or emergency department.

Getting medical care can be a little more complicated when traveling abroad. Some countries have government-funded hospitals that offer services similar to what we are used to in the U.S. Others, like the Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Barbados, have good private health services that can handle anything you would need as a tourist with an unanticipated medical problem. In countries with less developed medical systems, you may want to research the best place for medical care before you go, such as:  

Q: What are good general guidelines for a safe and healthy spring break? 
Dr. Miner: If you are in an unfamiliar place, pay extra attention to your safety and stay in groups. Know where you’re going, what you’re doing and have a plan to get around.

Stay hydrated with water. It’s probably warmer weather than you’ve been exposed to in a while, so you will get dehydrated more quickly. Also, avoid excessive alcohol consumption — being in the heat of the sun and being dehydrated can make this worse. This is true for hot tubs, as well.

Lastly, don’t use drugs. This often precedes some of the worst things that happen to people on vacation and lands them in the emergency department.

James Miner, MD, is an emergency medicine physician with M Physicians and head of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the U of M Medical School. He conducts research in the areas of pain management, procedural sedation, altered mental status, shock, and monitoring during critical care in the Emergency Department.