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Medical Care at Music Festivals

Springtime marks the beginning of festival season. From lean-tos and jam bands to luxury yurts and Beyonce, there’s a festival for every goer. While being outdoors is part of the fun, it also introduces extra safety issues into the mix. The wrong combinations of surging temperatures, alcohol and recreational drugs can turn life-threatening if they’re not addressed in time. That’s why it’s important to know what to do and where to go before you even get your wristband.

Your safety net

First and foremost, find your event’s first-aid station or medic tent. All of them should have one — the cost is included in your ticket price. You should always feel comfortable approaching medical staff for help, says Alex Pollak, a New York City paramedic since 1998 and the CEO of ParaDocs, a medical staffing company that provides services at events from races to music festivals. “We get it,” he says. “People are young and experimenting. We are there as a safety net.”

Regardless of the type of event, the medics tend to see a few hundred patients a day, covering conditions from hyperthermia (overheating) and nose bleeds to broken bones, food allergies, seizures and heart attacks.

“Drug names are just branding, they don’t really mean anything.”

“We have two or three board-certified emergency doctors — they are the doctors you find in an emergency room,” Pollak says. “We can do almost everything on site that can be done at an ER, like blood work, suturing and treating dehydration. More serious cases like fractures will be transported to the hospital.”

Thanks to HIPAA laws, nothing that happens inside the medical tent will be shared with your parents or the police (unless a person is carrying copious amounts of drugs, suggesting they might be a dealer).

“There’s a big stigma that you go to the medical tent and your day’s over — your parents are going to be called, you’re going to get kicked out of the festival, you’re going to go to jail,” Pollak says. “The thing is, if you are over 18, we’re not telling anyone.”

The usual culprits

Heat-related illnesses are the No. 1 issue at festivals, Pollak says. Several factors, such as ambient temperatures, physical activity and certain drugs, can defeat the body’s heat-regulating mechanisms and cause temperatures to spike above the 98.6-degree safe zone. Symptoms may include lightheadedness or dizziness, headaches, and nausea or vomiting. Extreme body temperatures, typically above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, can become a medical emergency and require immediate treatment to prevent serious damage or death.

Dehydration is another big issue that can cause your body to lose its ability to function normally. It’s important to drink enough water, but you should also make sure to drink beverages containing electrolytes (e.g., potassium and sodium) to restore your body’s electrolyte balance.

Low temperatures after sunset are another issue to prepare for. “The temperature dropping 10 degrees has a big impact,” Pollak says. “Layering up is great.”

Proper festival attire also includes appropriate shoes. Pollak’s team sees a lot of foot injuries, such as blisters from dancing in flip-flops for 12 hours.

Conditions caused by drug and alcohol use are fairly common as well, and some can be serious. One of the most concerning drugs is MDMA (Molly) or Ecstasy, because it can impair the body’s ability to regulate its core temperature. Couple that with dancing for hours and it easily puts people at high risk for hyperthermia and dehydration.

“Kids take MDMA and suddenly their temperature is 109 degrees,” Pollak says. “But as long as you come in, we can treat you. It’s the safest place to be. We have ice baths on site where we dunk patients to bring down their core temperature. We have large, cold-fluid IVs. If we don’t do that, then by the time they get to the hospital, 109 degrees can do permanent damage.”

Signs to take seriously

To know when you or a friend needs help, recognize the signs of hyperthermia and possible drug overdose:

  • Breathing too fast or too slow
  • Talking very fast or erratically without  making sense
  • Sweating so profusely it looks like you took a shower
  • Not sweating at all when everyone else is sweating
  • Excessive fidgeting or moving around, jaw-popping or chewing aggressively
  • Vomiting
  • Trouble walking
  • Drowsiness or sleeping in an unlikely place

Many of these symptoms could be nothing. But always err on the side of caution. “We’d rather have 100 patients come in who don’t need to be seen by us than miss that one patient who does,” Pollak says.

How to reduce drug-related risks

Some drugs are inherently dangerous and easy to overdose on. Others become a problem when mixed with other substances. To complicate things further, you don’t always know what substances are actually in a drug you bought from a stranger.

“There’s no totally safe way to consume drugs, particularly illegal drugs obtained from the black market,” says Mitchell Gomez, the executive director of DanceSafe, an organization promoting harm-reduction strategies within the electronic music community. “That said, tens of millions of people choose to take these substances anyway.”

If you’re set on taking drugs, there are ways to do it in a less risky manner.

The first step is to test your drugs, by using a kit bought online or visiting groups that do testing at festivals. “Drug names are just branding, they don’t really mean anything,” says Gomez. “All of the research in the world won’t help you if you don’t test it.” Consider the recent surge in cocaine laced with the opioid fentanyl, a combination with deadly results. DanceSafe frequently tests drugs circulating at festivals and issues alerts on Twitter and Facebook.

If you plan to take multiple drugs during the festival, do your research on mixing drugs and plan your drug schedule beforehand. “Don’t make those decisions while intoxicated; do it at home,” says Gomez. “Look for contraindications. There are a lot of drugs that are safe on their own but incredibly dangerous if mixed together.” For example, mixing drugs from the depressant class, like Xanax and alcohol, with dissociative drugs like ketamine is so dangerous that “a trip to the medical tent is your best outcome,” he says.

When taking drugs, especially those you haven’t tried before, make sure you have a friend with you. It’s always best to start by taking half of what is considered the normal dose, Gomez says.

Lastly, if something happens and you’re taken to the doctors, you might not be in a state to inform them about your medical history or conditions you might have. Write down your medical history and put it in your pocket, Gomez suggests. “The medical staff would love you for it.”

This story has been updated.

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