“The vast majority of hunters know and observe gun and tree stand safety, but too often they overestimate their physical abilities in the field,” said Jonathan Landis, MD, a veteran hunter and an emergency medicine physician at Canonsburg General Hospital, part of the West Penn Allegheny Health System. “Heart attacks are one of the biggest dangers to hunters, and one that often is ignored during preparations for the season.”
“Hunting can be very strenuous exercise, spiked with emotion-charged bursts of activity as prey is spotted and pursued,” said Dr. Landis. “The adrenaline rush can be especially dangerous for people who have already had a heart attack or experienced chest pain.”
“Walking long distances in cold weather, and particularly the exertion of hauling a deer carcass, is hard work for even the most physically fit individual and can be dangerous for the unfit, smokers or people with chronic health conditions,” Dr. Landis added. “Fortunately, preparation, forethought and common sense can help hunters avoid a tragic ending to deer season. Not only is it safer, it’s more enjoyable to hunt when you’re physically fit.”
For those who don’t exercise regularly, Dr. Landis recommends building up endurance in the weeks leading up to hunting season. A 30-minute brisk walk five times a week is a good starting point.
Getting a doctor’s checkup before the hunt begins is also a good idea, and is essential for those who already have a diagnosed heart condition. Ask your doctor if he or she thinks it’s safe for you to hunt and to lug a deer through the woods. Get numbers such as weight, blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar checked.
Once hunters are in the field, they need to take full advantage of the buddy system as well as modern technology, Dr. Landis said. Carry cell phones, but if you can’t get reception, remember to check on your hunting companions periodically. Tell others where you’re going. Also, watch for symptoms of illness in your fellow hunters: shortness of breath, pallor, nausea.
“Sometimes when people feel ill during a big, anticipated event they hesitate to call for help, for fear of disrupting things or spoiling the fun,” Dr. Landis said. “Never hesitate to call for help. We would prefer to check you out and find nothing wrong than have a tragedy occur.”
Chest pain is the most well-known sign of a heart attack, but is one of many symptoms. Hunters should be alert to any sudden pain or loss of sensation in any part of their bodies. Other warning signs include shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting, nausea, and shooting pains into the jaw, shoulders, neck or arms.
Even hunters who never venture from their tree stands could be at danger of hypothermia, a dangerous condition that happens when people stay out in cold weather for long periods of time.
“Hypothermia happens when your body loses heat faster than it can be produced,” Dr. Landis said. “Your body temperature drops, affecting your brain, making it difficult for you to think or move. One of the reasons hypothermia is so dangerous is that you may not even be aware of your symptoms.”
Hypothermia can occur even at temperatures above 40 degrees if the person is chilled by rain or sweat. Warning signs include shivering, exhaustion, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech and drowsiness.
Hunters who experience such symptoms, or see others with these symptoms, should get emergency help immediately. If help is not immediately available, get the victim into a warm room, remove wet clothing, and warm the center of the body first using an electric blanket if available or loose, dry layers of blankets, towels, sheets or clothing.