A guide to summertime emergencies

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Real Simple's tips can help you make informed decisions about the season's ills and spills.

This guide is for generally healthy adults. Decisions on when to seek care can vary greatly for children, the elderly, or anyone with a preexisting condition, Dr. Tom Scaletta, board member of the American Association of Emergency Medicine, said. The advice given here should not supersede common sense or your doctor's opinion.

A Sting
What it is: Usually an irritation, not an emergency―unless you're allergic. But even in someone who's not allergic, a sting in the wrong place can cause problems.

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What to do at home: 
- If you're stung on your hand, immediately remove any rings so they don't impede blood flow caused by swelling (and so you don't risk having your wedding band snipped off).

- Remove the stinger by scraping the skin (try a credit card held perpendicular to the skin). Don't grasp the stinger; this can force out more venom.

- Elevate the area of the sting and apply ice.

- You can take ibuprofen (such as Advil) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) for pain, and an over-the-counter antihistamine containing diphenhydramine (Benadryl) if the itching is bothersome. Hydrocortisone cream can also help.

Seek immediate help:
- If you experience throat swelling or tightening, generalized hives or itching (not just at the sting), wheezing, or light-headedness. These are signs of an allergic reaction, a true emergency. Call 911.

- Stung on the face or neck? Go to the ER if you are wheezing or feel as if your throat is closing; swelling may block your airway.

A Barbecue Burn
What it is: Assuming you didn't pass out on top of the barbecue, this burn is likely to be partial thickness (formerly classified as a first-degree or minor second-degree burn).

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What to do at home:
- Cool water will make the burn feel better. Don't use ice (which can cause further injury to a severe burn) or butter (which doesn't do anything).

- Clean the burn with soap and water.

- Apply an antibiotic cream and a bandage.

- Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain.

Seek immediate help:
If the burn is bigger than the size of your palm (your palm is about 1 percent of your body's surface area). You're likely to need a prescription pain reliever, and a doctor should make sure the burn is clean and cover it with a sterile dressing.

A Gash From Hedge Shears

What it is: More than just a good excuse to stop pruning, this can be a serious cut.

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What to do at home:
- Run water over the cut for at least 60 seconds to wash out any debris.

- Sit down, elevate the injury, and apply pressure to stop the bleeding.

- If you haven't had a tetanus booster in the past five years, check with your doctor to see if you need one, because tetanus spores are often present in dirt.

Seek immediate help:
- If the cut is longer than a half inch and you can gently pull the edges of the cut apart (even if they come back together). That's a sign you need stitches.

- If a scar's placement could affect your appearance, you may want stitches even if the cut isn't that big.

- Worst-case scenarios: Rhythmically spurting blood indicates you've cut an artery, numbness could signify a severed nerve, and inability to move an extremity may mean you've cut a tendon.

A Puncture Wound

What it is: A small but deep wound that usually closes up quickly. But a fish hook in a finger or a rusty nail through a Nike could cause infection.

What to do at home:
- Make sure there is nothing in the wound. Is whatever stuck you whole? If not, look for pieces embedded in the wound; try to extricate them with alcohol-cleaned tweezers.

- Wash the wound with soap and water.

- Apply gentle pressure.

- If the fish hook was never used and barely entered your finger, you can simply apply a layer of antibiotic cream.

- If you haven't had a tetanus booster in the last five years, check with your doctor to see if you need one.

Seek immediate help:
- If the nail passed through your gym shoe on the way to your foot or the hook had seen the inside of a fish or a worm. In both cases, germs may have been carried deep inside the wound, and a doctor will want you to start taking antibiotics ASAP.

- If blood is spurting or the bleeding doesn't stop after five minutes of gentle pressure, or if you can't get the dirt or what punctured you out of the wound, call your doctor.

- If you didn't immediately start on antibiotics and later develop signs of infection―redness, swelling, oozing, red streaks emanating from the wound, or a 100-degree-plus fever―see a doctor.

Heat Exhaustion
What it is: If you play too hard in the summer heat and humidity and take too few breaks for nonalcoholic liquid refreshment, you may feel faint, nauseated, and headachy.

What to do at home:
- Stop what you're doing and rest in a cool, shady area.

- Spritz yourself with water and sit in front of a fan.

- Sip a sports drink to replace fluid and electrolytes. Or mix juice with a little water, or add 1/4 teaspoon salt to a quart of water. Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

Seek immediate help:
- If you can't keep fluids down or if you start to feel confused. You may be developing potentially deadly heatstroke. Other signs include delirium or unconsciousness, hyperventilation, muscle cramps, and a temperature of 102 degrees or more.

Food Poisoning
What it is: You spent the afternoon in the park with friends and a picnic basket. Tonight you're spending it in the bathroom with a sudden attack of nausea, vomiting, cramping, and diarrhea.

What to do at home:
- Drink plenty of clear liquids to stay hydrated. Sports drinks are best; second best is diluted juice.

- When the nausea and vomiting ease, you can eat a little bland food, such as rice, bread, or boiled chicken.

Seek immediate help:
- If you feel dizzy, lightheaded, or confused, or if you pass out.

- If you have a fever over 101 degrees or sharp or gripping pains that last more than 15 minutes.

- If you can't keep fluids down or have been vomiting for eight hours, call a doctor; you may need IV fluids or medicine to stop the vomiting.

- If your symptoms don't let up within two days, it's time to see a doctor. You might have a microbe that requires antibiotics or a more serious problem.

- Other signals that you need help: You vomit blood, you have bloody bowel movements, or you stop urinating.