Fire? Check. Knives? Check. Copious amounts of alcohol? Check. What could possibly go wrong when grilling outdoors, you ask. Well, now that you mention it — a hell of a lot. “I once treated someone who stomped out a campfire in flip-flops and fried off the soles of his feet,” says Dr. Kristina E. Orio, attending physician in the Emergency Department at the South Shore Hospital in Weymouth, Mass.
From flash burns to finger lacerations, here’s everything you need to know for when your BBQ gets out of control.
“Flash burns to the face are very common when grilling,” says Orio. “Typically, there is a fair amount of alcohol imbibed by the griller in the setting.”
Dr. Michael Freedman, MD, a plastic surgeon in upstate New York, says that lighter fluids are another common culprit. “What usually happens is you have someone who is using briquettes and they are taking too long to heat up, so the individual keeps spraying them with an accelerant like gasoline or kerosene,” he says. “Then when they light the fire, it flares up toward the person’s face. Every summer, we have someone come in who is bright red, with first– to second-degree burns on his face, no eyebrows, no eyelashes and the hair in their nose is all gone. You’ll have to take antibiotic ointment for that because it’s going to hurt for several days.”
How badly have you been burned?
A first-degree burn is like simple sunburn — your skin is red and it hurts. This will heal without much intervention, says Orio. Apply a cool compress and cold water to the affected areas; take Motrin for pain control. Same rules apply to the scalp as the face and body in terms of burn management.
A second-degree burn blisters and really hurts. Any second-degree burns can scar significantly and the griller needs to go to the Emergency Room immediately, says Orio. Remove charred clothing and anything constricting like necklaces, rings or bracelets. Apply cold tap water and a clean, dry dressing to the area, such as a sheet or gauze. Do not use ice or ice water, as this can make things worse, says Orio.
Third degree burns tend to appear whitish at the edges and do not hurt because the nerves are damaged.
Fourth degree burns go down to the muscle and bone: Obviously one needs to go to the Emergency Room for treatment. Call 911, brother.
Corneal burns can occur also occur from being too close to the grill. It feels like sand in the eye and often the person is light sensitive afterward. Irrigate eyes with cool tap water, and then get to the nearest hospital to have the eyes evaluated.
“The risk of smoke inhalation outdoors is pretty remote,” says Freedman. “And you really shouldn’t be grilling indoors.” But if for whatever reason you do suffer from smoke inhalation, you will know it immediately: singed nasal hairs, swollen lips and tongue, hoarse voice, difficulty swallowing or breathing, or carbonaceous (black appearing) saliva/sputum will all appear. “Those suffering from smoke inhalation can get swollen airways very quickly and may need to be intubated with a breathing tube,” says Orio. “They may not be able to articulate these symptoms very well if intoxicated, so hopefully there is someone around who is sober to call 911 immediately.”
Jalapeño in the eye
“This is actually, more of an irritant rather than an acid issue,” said Orio. “First, wash your hands so you don’t continue to put more capsaicin (the chemical in peppers that causes heat) in the eye. Wash with cool water for a few minutes. There is anecdotal evidence that milk works to break down the capsaicin faster. I would recommend cutting all hot peppers with gloves on moving forward.”
“I have seen at least 100 people with fingertip amputations from cutting limes, tomatoes and avocados,” says Orio. “If it is above the fingernail, there is not much to do except clean the area with soap and water, apply some Bacitracin, and apply pressure and elevate.” If the amputation is lower down on the finger, wash with soap and water and apply pressure, then get to the ER for suturing. Same drill applies for large lacerations to the hand. Always clean with soap and water, apply pressure and elevate.
“People who know to curl their fingers inward while chopping might end up with occasional cuts on their knuckles, which isn’t that bad,” says Freedman. “But most times people who don’t know what they are doing cut off the tip of their finger and it tends to bleed a lot. If you lose the tip and it’s less than a centimeter in diameter, it will heal on its own.”
If more of the finger has been cut off than that, Freedman suggests that you can take that piece — if, he notes, it’s not lost in the meat — and bring it with you to the emergency room to be reattached. He also emphatically encourages home cooks to thaw meat before slicing.
“The most typical injury I see is where someone has taken a steak out of the freezer and tries to cut it while it’s still frozen, which usually results in a more significant hand injury,” says Freedman. “In that case, you’ll need to apply pressure to the hand and go to the ER.”
Kebab skewer to hand
“If the spear is still stuck in the hand, don’t remove it,” says Orio. “Get to the hospital. In fact, stabilize the spear while traveling so as not to cause any further damage.”
Meat overload (also called “Steakhouse Syndrome”)
“I see this once each week in the summer,” says Orio. “It is called a ‘steak bolus’ that gets stuck in the esophagus (usually). This can cause difficulty breathing, and if that happens, call 911. It can also cause chest pain.” If the patient is not spitting out saliva and can drink water, it is less of an emergency. If they can’t talk or are spitting up saliva, get to a hospital. The steak might have to be pushed through by a Gastroenterologist. “Remind men to chew their food,” says Orio.
Broken nose from a militant vegan
“Not as big a deal as you might think,” says Orio matter-of-factly; she then advises placing firm pressure over the nose, as if you were about to jump underwater, for 15 minutes to stop any nosebleeds. “Don’t stuff tissue or anything else up there,” she says. If it continues to bleed, and someone has some Afrin lying around, Orio advises spraying two sprays in each nostril then applying pressure for another 15 minutes.
“I can tell you from personal experience, I live with three vegetarians and they get very distressed when there is meat around,” says Dr. Freedman. “Thankfully, no one has ever punched me. But if that happened, after applying pressure to your nose to stop the bleeding, you should wish them well and explain to them you were only eating organic meat that was raised humanely and allowed to roam freely.”
Then, Freedman advises, go see your doctor.
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