Festival season is firmly upon us. So, we decided to take a look at some of the health issues (and unhealthy practices) people might be more likely to encounter at a festival, and the noticeable effects these can have on the body in a relatively short time.

We’ll also discuss what measures festival-goers can take to make sure their trip remains a healthy one.

  • Straight away. Someone with hay fever might start to notice rhinitis symptoms (stuffy nose, irritated airways and eyes) shortly after arriving, if the pollen count is high. Someone with asthma may become wheezy if their symptoms are triggered by allergens.

  • The first 6 hours. Steady alcohol consumption over this period of time may have led to lightheadedness. Sunburn may be developing, leading to red and painful areas on unprotected, exposed skin.

  • By 24 hours. Someone who drank heavily the night before will likely have a severe hangover and be dehydrated. Those who have smoked when they don’t normally, or smoked more than they normally do, may have raised blood pressure and chest congestion. Where someone hasn’t consumed enough water, they might have develop the symptoms of dehydration, such as a headache, tiredness and darker urine.

  • By 48 hours. Poor personal hygiene may have resulted in body odor and halitosis. It may also have increased the likelihood of ingesting harmful bacteria, potentially leading to food poisoning. Symptoms of this can develop anywhere from 12 hours to 5 days after ingesting contaminated food. Sleep deprivation may also be contributing to feelings of tiredness and irritability.

Festivals are a huge business. A survey carried out on behalf of Think Money projected that around 14 million UK adults planned to attend at least one festival in 2015. Furthermore, Eventbrite estimate that the average festival goer spends £250 over the course of a festival weekend.

As well as music, camping and food, festivals have become somewhat synonymous with alcohol consumption over the years. In this regard and several others, people at festivals may be more inclined to throw caution to the wind when it comes to their health. It’s an environment which provides a short-term release from our daily working lives. Getting into the spirit of the celebration, we might drink a little more than we usually do, stay up partying later than we normally would, and let our personal hygiene slip a little (we are ‘roughing it’ in the great outdoors, after all).

Of course, it’s important to enjoy yourself at a festival; that’s the chief purpose of going to one. But becoming sick or unwell can put a severe dampener on your festival experience, so it’s also important to be mindful of the health risks we might be susceptible to at a festival as well.

We thought it might be interesting to explore the potential health issues attending a festival can throw up. In this piece, we’ll look at what effects being unhealthy at a festival can have on your body, and where possible, when these might occur:

Straight away

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Hay fever and asthma

According to Allergy UK, 44% of UK adults have at least one allergy; 48% of which have more than one allergy. Allergic rhinitis (hay fever) affects between 10 and 30% of adults in the UK, and 4.3 million UK adults receive treatment for asthma.

If the pollen count is high, those with allergic conditions such as hay fever and asthma might typically start to notice them shortly after arriving at their destination (if they haven’t already noticed symptoms while travelling).

Those with hay fever might notice:

  • Irritation in the nose, mouth, throat and eyes
  • Coughing
  • Sneezing

Those with asthma might notice:

  • Wheeziness
  • Tight chest

These may become further exacerbated later on by the presence of smoke (be it from smoking, barbecuing or stage pyro), or humid or hot weather.

Preventative measures: Well in advance of the festival, check the weather forecast. If the pollen count is going to be high where your festival is, it might be wise to take an antihistamine beforehand where required, and take a sufficient supply with you.

If you have asthma, you should always carry your inhalers with you, and continue to take these as instructed.

Try to steer clear of asthma and allergy triggers, such as smoke, if you can. Self-help measures, such as wearing wraparound sunglasses, and applying a small amount of vaseline to the base of the nostrils, can help to limit the eyes and nasal passages from coming into contact with allergen particles.

In the first 6 hours

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Sunburn

The longer someone spends in the sun, the more at risk they are from sunburn. However, just 15 minutes of unprotected UV exposure is enough for some people to ‘catch the sun’, or develop mild sunburn. If we’re outdoors in a gentle breeze, we might feel cooler and not even realise sunburn is developing. The longer someone is exposed to the sun without protection, and the more intense UV rays are, the more likely sunburn is to develop.

Sunburn can affect anyone. However people more at risk of sunburn are those with pale or white skin, with freckles or light hair, or those only exposed to sun occasionally.

How long symptoms take to develop and how bad they are depends on the extent of the burn. However, in many cases:

  • The affected area of skin might turn red in 2-6 hours
  • Pain and tenderness may develop over the following 24 hours
  • Peeling might typically start from around 3 days onwards

Preventative measures: Take plenty of sunscreen with you, and apply it according to the directions before going out into the sun. Don’t forget that you may need to reapply it at regular intervals. Wearing loose, long-sleeved light clothing and hats can help to protect you from the sun too. You should also take regular breaks in the shade.

UV rays tend to be at their most intense between the hours of 11am and 3pm. Pay heed to the shadow rule: if your shadow is shorter than you are, it means the sun is high in the sky, and UV rays are stronger.

Alcohol consumption

Alcohol is a prominent fixture at festivals. According to Time Out, 97% of UK festival goers consume alcohol.

Because many people who camp at festivals will take their own alcohol too, it can be easy for people to lose track of how much they’ve consumed (as they aren’t going to the bar every time they need a drink).

How alcohol affects the body depends on a number of factors, such as whether someone is male or female, and how much they drink.

Within the first six hours, it’s likely someone has had time to pitch their tent and settle down with a couple of drinks. Two large glasses of wine or two pints of strong beer is equivalent to around 6 units of alcohol.

Consumed over a couple of hours, 6 units of alcohol might cause someone to experience:

  • Light-headedness
  • Slower than usual reaction times

We’ll come to what happens when someone consumes more than this later on.

Preventative measures: Anything over 6 units for a woman or 8 units for a man in one session is considered binge drinking; so consuming over this amount pushes you over the lower risk threshold.

If you are drinking alcohol, try to pace yourself and alternate between alcoholic drinks and water, so that you don’t become dehydrated.

From 6-24 hours

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(More) alcohol consumption

It’s the next day. A large part of how someone feels right now will depend on how much alcohol they consumed the night before.

If someone consumed 9 units:

At the time, their speech might have become slurred, and their capacity to concentrate may have become affected.

The liver is responsible for removing alcohol from the system; it does this at a rate of about one unit per hour. So if someone drank this amount, it’s probable, as their body will not have been able to remove all of the alcohol from their system since, that they have at least a mild hangover.

If someone consumed 12 units:

At the time, their motor skills would likely have become impaired. This would have increased the likelihood of trips and falls.

It’s also likely they would have needed to go to the toilet a lot, as their body tried to expel the alcohol in their system. This could have caused them to become dehydrated.

Their digestive system may also have reacted badly to this amount of alcohol, meaning that nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea may have occurred too.

And the more alcohol they drank, the worse the hangover.

If you consumed over 12 units:

In addition to causing all of the above but worse, consuming more than 12 units in a short space of time increases the risk of alcohol poisoning. This makes it more likely for someone to lose consciousness and experience breathing difficulties, and require medical attention.

Preventative measures: Remember what the low risk threshold is. It’s also important to remember that alcohol levels in the body can continue to climb for up to 40 minutes after you’ve had a drink, so it’s much better to stop as soon as you start to feel the effects.

If you consumed 9 units or more the previous evening and are feeling the effects of a hangover, drink plenty of fluids (water, not alcohol) to help rehydrate yourself. It’s also advisable to give your body a rest by not drinking any more alcohol for at least 48 hours.

Smoking

It’s generally accepted that if someone is a social smoker, or an ex-smoker, it’s more likely that they’ll succumb to the temptation of a cigarette after a few drinks. And for someone who has never smoked, being around other smokers after having a few drinks may make it more likely for them to try it for the first time.

And at festivals, people drink, which can make this atmosphere a more conducive one for non-habitual smokers to indulge.

According to researchers at Aarhus University in Denmark, 9 percent of new smokers debut at a festival, and 24 percent of recently quit ex-smokers relapse at a festival.

Smoking can affect the body in a number of ways; in both the long- and short-term.

  • The first cigarette or two, particularly if someone isn’t used to smoking, may cause them to feel light-headed and nauseous.
  • After this, particularly if they continue to smoke more, someone may experience a sore throat, coughing and a headache.
  • Other symptoms which may develop quite quickly from smoking include an increase in blood pressure and cortisol levels.

As we’ve discussed before, the long term effects of smoking are numerous, and can cause very serious health problems, such as lung cancer and heart disease.

Preventative measures: In short, don’t smoke.

If you haven’t smoked before, the best thing to do is never to try it in the first instance.

If you have smoked before or have recently quit, then it can help to limit your alcohol intake, so that you are not as tempted to smoke. It can also help to share a tent with people who you know aren’t going to smoke.

If you’re trying to quit smoking, you needn’t avoid going to a festival altogether; but you should be mindful of the fact that a festival may provide a tempting environment for relapse. It’s important to carry on with your current quit plan and try your best to stick to it.

And again, limit your alcohol intake, and try not to share close quarters with people who do smoke.

Sunburn

If someone spent a long time in the sun yesterday without applying sun protection, then the redness, tenderness and pain associated with sunburn is likely in full swing by now.

Preventative measures: If you’re sunburnt, avoid further sun exposure so you don’t exacerbate the burn. Cover up with loose clothing and try as much as possible to stay in the shade. Using an over-the-counter after-sun care product can help to soothe the burn too.

Dehydration

On a normal day, someone should aim to drink around two litres of water (equivalent to 8 glasses) per day. If someone is outdoors in hot weather and moving around or dancing, then they will need to drink around this amount or sometimes more to avoid becoming dehydrated. Heavy alcohol consumption can also lead to dehydration.

Symptoms of dehydration include:

  • Headache
  • Darker urine
  • Tiredness

Again, it depends on how warm conditions are, and how much water someone has (or hasn’t) drunk, but symptoms can materialise over the course of just a few hours.

Severe dehydration can interfere with pulse rate, and cause confusion and loss of consciousness. This requires urgent medical attention.

Preventative measures: On warmer days, consider the two litres per day level a baseline amount. Pay attention to how thirsty you are, and how much you’re sweating. Make sure you or someone in your party has a water bottle with you at all times, and keep track of how much you’ve had.

From 24-48 hours

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Food poisoning

Ingesting harmful bacteria or germs through food is a risk at a festival, particularly if washing facilities are limited.

What are the symptoms?

Food poisoning can cause:

  • fever
  • diarrhoea
  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • and dehydration.

Many cases might present symptoms within 24 hours of eating contaminated food. However, different bacteria and viruses have different incubation periods, so symptom development times may vary.

For instance, for salmonella, the incubation period is 12 hours to 3 days; the norovirus takes 1-2 days to develop; and campylobacter typically takes 2-5 days to develop.

Preventative measures: Be vigilant when it comes to preparing and eating food. Wash your hands before and after handling food, particularly meat, and before eating. Keep your cooking areas clean, and invest in a reliable camping stove. If you are self-catering and want to limit the possibility of food poisoning, try to take food with you that is already cooked, and just needs reheating (such as tinned food or soup) or dry food that doesn’t need refrigerating (such as bread).

If you’re eating from a stall, try to avoid high risk foods like shell-fish.

Remember that spicy foods might make you need to go to the toilet more.

If you think you may have food poisoning, see a doctor. Most cases of food poisoning do not need specific treatment. Rest and drinking plenty of fluid is generally enough to help someone recover. Oral rehydration solutions may be recommended where someone is experiencing diarrhoea. In severe cases where a bacterial infection is responsible, antibiotics may be issued and hospital admission recommended.

Poor personal hygiene

Showers and washing facilities are typically limited and in high demand at festivals. When you want to make the most of your time there, queuing up may not always be convenient.

What are the signs?

Once more, it depends how warm the weather is, and how much someone sweats.

Other factors, such as the amount of sugary drinks or alcohol someone consumes, may affect their oral hygiene.

But generally:

  • After two whole days of not showering in warm weather conditions, someone will likely have started to develop body odour;
  • and if someone hasn't brushed their teeth in this time, it’s likely that they’ve encountered at least the very start of halitosis.

Preventative measures: Don’t rely on the showers being available, particularly at peak times (in the morning). Try to go when it’s quieter (in the afternoon or evening).

Take body cleansing wipes with you too as a backup, in case the showers become unavailable (they aren’t as good as a shower, but they’re better than nothing at all).

Don’t forget your toothbrush, toothpaste, mouthwash and floss. Make sure you have enough water in supply back at your tent, so that you can brush your teeth whenever you need to.

(Even more) alcohol

We’ve established that if you’ve consumed an excessive amount of alcohol, you should give your body at least 48 hours to recover.

Some studies have suggested that binge drinking on two or more consecutive days can cause a condition referred to as ‘holiday heart syndrome’. This is used to describe temporary arrhythmia (an irregular heartbeat) in patients with no history of heart disease. Someone experiencing it may also notice palpitations.

Preventative measures: As before, give your body a rest for at least 48 hours if you’ve consumed a lot of alcohol the night before.

If you develop palpitations while drinking alcohol, you should obviously stop drinking alcohol and give your body and heart a rest. 

Most of the time, palpitations will pass on their own. However, if they persist or begin to occur frequently, or if you have a history of heart disease and you develop them, you should see a doctor.

(If you develop heart palpitations in addition to chest pain, fainting, severe breathlessness or dizziness, you should seek emergency medical attention.)

Smoking (relapse)

For an ex-smoker who has recently quit, it’s possible for a single one-off cigarette to turn into a full-blown relapse. In which case, it’s likely that nicotine cravings will return fairly quickly.

Those who have smoked intensively over the previous couple of days may have also developed a sore throat and congestion in the chest.

Preventative measures: If you have relapsed and had a couple of cigarettes, it’s important not fall into the trap of thinking you’ve failed. Put it behind you, and try again. If you’ve managed to give up before, you can do it again. The sooner you quit, the sooner you’ll be able to get over the initial withdrawal, and experience the various health benefits of not smoking.

Sleep deprivation

Some mild signs of sleep deprivation might begin to appear after just one night of poor sleep. However, these are likely to be even more pronounced after two or more consecutive nights of poor sleep.

Someone who gets less than 6-8 hours per night may feel tired, irritable and less alert. Someone who doesn’t get enough rest or sleeps badly for several consecutive nights may also be more prone to muscle aches and pains.

Preventative measures: Most people might expect to get a little less sleep than usual over a festival weekend. When sleeping outdoors, after a late night, in a cramped tent, you’re obviously going to be less likely to sleep well than you normally would in your own bed.

But there are measures you can take to help yourself sleep more soundly.

Again, limiting the amount you drink is important. Not smoking can help too, as you’re less likely to develop chest congestion and cough during the night. Try not to eat too late or just before going to bed. Take some earplugs with you to help block out peripheral noise.

Beyond 48 hours

STIs

The likelihood of someone engaging in unprotected sex is higher after excessive alcohol consumption.

Some festivals may have stalls which sell or supply condoms, but otherwise, they might not be readily available to purchase.

Unprotected sex exponentially increases the risk of numerous STIs.

Different STIs can cause different symptoms. However bacterial STIs like chlamydia or gonorrhoea might cause no symptoms at all. 7 in 10 cases of female chlamydia cases are asymptomatic, as are 5 in 10 male cases. Where these conditions do cause symptoms, these may not develop until 1-3 weeks following exposure.

Complications of bacterial STIs like chlamydia include infertility, and pelvic inflammatory disease.

Preventative measures: There are a number of ways you can limit the likelihood of contracting an STI.

Whether you plan to have sex or not, if you’re sexually active, take condoms or barrier protection with you just in case you need it.

Remember that STIs can be passed on through various routes, including vaginal, anal or oral sex. Some, such as herpes, can be passed on through skin contact too.

It’s always better for two people to know about each other’s sexual history before having sex. Not engaging in unprotected sex with anyone who you aren’t in a  monogamous relationship with will help to drastically reduce the chances of STI transmission.

Keeping your alcohol within sensible limits can help too: the less you drink, the less likely you are to engage in unprotected intercourse.