Throughout Oregon, dial 911 for medical, police, or fire emergencies. Most hospitals offer a 24-hour emergency room. Remember that medical costs are high here, as in the rest of the United States, and emergency rooms are the most expensive places for medical care; for nonemergency situations, look for urgency clinics.
In this part of the country, anyone who participates in outdoor recreation should be alert for problems with hypothermia—when your body loses more heat than can be recovered and shock ensues. The damp chill of the Northwest climate poses a greater hypothermia threat than colder climes with low humidity. In other words, it doesn’t have to be freezing for death from hypothermia to occur; wind and wetness often turn out to be greater risk factors. Remember that a wet human body loses heat 23 times faster than a dry one.
One of the first signs of hypothermia is a diminished ability to think and act rationally. Speech can become slurred, and uncontrollable shivering usually takes place. Stumbling, memory lapses, and drowsiness also tend to characterize the afflicted. Unless the body temperature can be raised several degrees by a knowledgeable helper, cardiac arrhythmia or arrest may occur. Getting out of the wind and rain into a dry warm environment is essential for survival. This might mean placing the victim into a sleeping bag with another person. Ideally, a ground cloth should be used to insulate the sleeping bag from cold surface temperatures. Internal heat can be generated by feeding the victim high-carbohydrate snacks and hot liquids. Placing wrapped heated objects against the victim’s body is also a good way to restore body heat. Be careful not to raise body heat too quickly, as that could also cause cardiac problems.
Measures you can take to prevent hypothermia include eating a nutritious diet, avoiding overexertion followed by exposure to wet and cold, and dressing warmly in layers of wool and polypropylene. Wool insulates even when wet, and because polypropylene tends to wick moisture away from your skin, it makes a good first layer. Gore-Tex and other waterproof breathable fabrics make for more comfortable rain gear than nylon because they don’t become cumbersome and hot in a steady rain. Finally, wear a hat to prevent heat loss through your head.
Frostbite is not generally a major problem until the combined air and wind-chill temsperature falls below 20°F. Outer appendages such as fingers and toes are the most susceptible, with the ears and nose a close second. Frostbite occurs when blood is redirected out of the limbs to warm vital organs in cold weather, and the exposed parts of the face and peripherals cool very rapidly. Mild frostbite is characterized by extremely pale skin with random splotchiness; in more severe cases, the skin will take on a gray ashen look and feel numb. At the first signs of suspected frostbite, you should gently warm the afflicted area. In more aggravated cases, immerse hands and feet in warm water. Do not massage the skin, or you risk further skin damage. Warming frostbitten areas against the skin of another person is suitable for less serious frostbite. The warmth of a campfire cannot help once the skin is discolored. As with hypothermia, it’s important to avoid exposing the hands and feet to wind and wetness by dressing properly.
Neither the best intentions nor knowledge from a lifetime in the woods can spare the western Oregon hiker at least one brush with poison oak. Major infestations of the plant are seldom encountered in the Coast Range but are prevalent in the Columbia Gorge. In the fall, the leaves are tinged with red. Even when the plant is totally denuded in winter, the toxicity of its irritating sap still remains a threat.
When hiking in hardwood forests, it’s a good idea to wear long pants, shirts, and other covering. When you know you’ve been exposed, try to get your clothes off before the resin permeates your garments. Follow up as soon as possible by washing with Tecnu, a type of soap that seems to help remove the poison oak oil from skin. It’s available at REI and at many drugstores. If you get the rash, cortisone cream is effective at temporarily quelling the intense itching.
Known medically as giardiasis but colloquially called “beaver fever,” this syndrome afflicts those who drink water contaminated by Giardia lamblia parasites. Even water from cold clear streams can be infested by this microorganism, which is spread throughout the backcountry by beavers, muskrats, livestock, and other hikers. Boiling water for 20 minutes or applying five drops of chlorine, or preferably iodine, to every quart of water and letting it sit for half an hour are simple ways to kill the giardia spores. Backpackers should use water pumps that filter out giardia and other organisms.
Mosquitoes can be a problem especially in the Cascades, the Willamette Valley , and parts of the Columbia River Gorge . West Nile virus is not common in Oregon, though it appears to be increasing, mostly in the eastern part of the state. When mosquitoes are present, it’s a good idea apply insect repellent and wear long pants and shirts to reduce the chance of getting bitten. Otherwise, you may want to stay indoors during prime mosquito time, around dusk.
Of approximately 20 species of hard ticks found in Oregon, only four species are commonly found on humans. Of these, the western black-legged tick (also known as the Pacific tick and deer tick) is the only known carrier in the western United States of the bacterium that causes the debilitating Lyme disease.
The first sign of Lyme disease is a circular rash that appears within 3–30 days at the site of the bite and gradually enlarges to several inches in diameter, clearing up at the center while staying red around the edges. The rash may be accompanied by flu-like symptoms, and it spreads all over the body in one out of two cases.
The second stage of the illness affects only about 15 percent of those infected, but the consequences can be severe. Inflammation of the nerves and covering tissues of the spinal cord and brain can often result in headaches as well as memory loss and concentration problems. The heart can also be affected, resulting in decreased heart function and fainting spells. The last stage, characterized by aching joints, occurs weeks to years after the bite.
The disease can usually be cured with a 10-day dosage of antibiotics, if it is caught early. Delay in treatment can lead to serious complications. If you see the telltale red rash days or weeks after your romp in grassy, brushy, or wooded areas, see a doctor.
A prescription for prevention is to lay the insect repellent on thickly before venturing into potentially infested areas. Also, be sure to check your body and clothing frequently during and after possible exposure. Ticks often may be found attached in the underarms, the groin, behind the knees, and at the nape of the neck.
If you find an attached tick, remove it promptly by grasping it with tweezers, as close to the skin as possible, and pulling it straight out, steadily and firmly. Don’t twist it, as this increases the chance of breaking off mouth parts and leaving them embedded in your skin. Afterward, wash up with soap and water, and apply an antiseptic to the bite area. The same routine applies for the removal of ticks from pets.