Environmental Emergencies

Environmental emergencies refer to illnesses, injuries, and other conditions caused by aspects of the various environments in which human beings live, work,and play.

Altitude Sickness

Altitude sickness is caused by reduced oxygen and barometric pressure at altitudes above 8,000 feet (2,438 meters). For detailed information on signs, symptoms, and treatment, go to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) or  WebMD. In addition, the Mayo Clinic has an article about airplane ear, also known as ear barotrauma.

Bites and Stings

This section contains nonvenomous bites and stings that occur as part of the environment people find themselves in. Venomous bites and stings are listed in the Poisoning and Drug Abuse page. Nonvenomous bite and stings include those from insects and other bugs, animals, and human beings. Nonvenomous bites and stings can cause bleeding, infection, and the spread of certain diseases.

Insects and arachnids

The following insects and arachnids are capable of inflicting irritating bites. While they do not inject venom into the wound, they pierce the skin leaving nasty, irritated welts and other soft-tissue injuries. In some cases, these bites can transmit pathogens that cause various diseases.

Mammals (including humans)

The bite of domestic and wild animals can result in infection, tissue damage, and severe bleeding.

Marine/River life

The Poison and Drug Abuse page contains information about venomous aquatic lifeforms. This section talks about bites from nonvenomous animals that inhabit the oceans.

Compression-Related Emergencies

Breathing air under pressure while scuba diving or otherwise working in a pressurized environment can be hazardous. For detailed information about decompression sickness, go to eMedicine Medscape.

The following conditions can occur:

The links above contain mechanism of injury, signs and symptoms, and treatment details.


According to the World Health Organization, drowning is the process of experiencing respiratory impairment from submersion/immersion in water or other liquid. In 2004, an estimated 388,000 people died from drowning, making drowning a major public health problem worldwide. To see world-wide statistics, go to the World Health Organization – drowning statistics.

In the United States, approximately 3,533 people die from drowning every year (nearly 10 per day). In addition, an estimated 16,000 drowning incidents result in hospitalization, with many victims suffering permanent disability. For drowning stastistics in the United States, go to the CDC unintentional drowning fact sheet.

Heat- and Cold-Related Emergencies

The human body keeps itself at a constant core temperature. Although the “accepted” average normal body temperature is 98.6°F (37.0°C), normal body temperature varies from person to person, from body part to body part, and from hour to hour during the day. Thus, an oral temperature reading between 97.7°F and 99.5°F (36.5°C and 37.5°C) is most likely normal.

The body temperature control center is in the brain; it is called the hypothalamus. The hypothalamus receives information about body temperature and makes adjustment accordingly to keep body temperature within an acceptable range. This is important since the cells of the body cannot stay alive and healthy for long outside of the normal range. Click the link for more details on body temperature.

How the body regulates temperature

Thermoregulation is the ability of the body to keep its temperature within a certain range, even when the surrounding temperature is very different. If the body is unable to maintain its normal temperature, a heat- or cold-related emergency can result.

Heat is a byproduct of metabolism, the conversion of food into energy. Most body heat is generated in the deep organs, especially the liver, brain, and heart. In addition, the body also gains heat by shivering or any kind of physical activity. You assist in the maintenance of an appropriate body temperature by wearing appropriate clothing, minimizing exposure to harsh environments, staying hydrated, becoming acclimated over time, etc.

The skin assists in maintaining normal body temperature by reacting differently to hot and cold conditions so that the inner body temperature remains more or less constant. Vasodilation and sweating are the primary modes by which humans attempt to lose excess body heat. Alternatively, vasoconstriction occurs in cold environments to reduce the amount of blood near the surface thereby retaining heat in the body’s core.

Heat-related emergencies

Several illnesses and other conditions can occur due to the overheating of the body. For a FAQ about exposure to extreme heat by the CDC, click the link. Heat-related illnesses can happen to anyone but the following contributing factors make a heat-related illness more likely: high humidity; strenuous activity; being young or old; having preexisting conditions like diabetes, heart disease, or obesity; and drug use.

Cold-related emergencies

A cold-related emergency can be a generalized or localized condition. When the cold environment cause a critical drop in core body temperature, this generalized condition is known as hypothermia. Factors that contribute to hypothermia include the temperature; humidity; the presence of wind or water; the age of the patient; inappropriate clothing; alcohol and drug use; and medical conditions like shock, infection, hypoglycemia, etc.

Localized cold-related emergencies include frostnip, superficial frostbite, and deep frostbite. These conditions involve the freezing of body tissue.

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