Matt Griffiths, Visiting Professor of Prescribing and Medicines Management

From The Who to Beyoncé, there’s not a band I haven’t heard in the 25 years I have been volunteering at Glastonbury Festival. The world’s most favourite festival attracts over 150,000 festival-goers each year and has become one of Europe’s biggest outdoor festivals of music and culture.

Whether it’s Glastonbury or Reading and Leeds, festivals are absolutely fantastic.

With the festival season now upon us, many people all over the UK are looking forward to the events of their choice. They are preparing their camping equipment, dusting off their wellies, downloading tickets, and saving some money to spend whilst they are there. One thing that people haven’t necessarily thought about and prepared for is their health. It’s one reason why around 4,000 people every year find themselves seeking medical attention from me and my colleagues in the medical tent.

Whether veterans of the music festival or complete novices, health issues can affect all of us. In the quarter of a century that I have been working at Glastonbury Festival, I have seen all manner of injuries and illness. From people with coughs and colds, minor injuries and chronic conditions (such as diabetes and asthma) to cancer patients and people with major trauma.

Staying safe at a festival is important and there a few things that we should consider to avoid any common health hazards.

Sex

Relationships do blossom at festivals, and if you are planning to have an intimate relationship or even if you aren’t, take some condoms. You can always give them to a friend if you don’t need them. The rate of Chlamydia in the younger population is around 1:8. People don’t know that they have it, as there are no specific symptoms. It is relatively easy to treat, however left untreated and it can cause you problems later on in life. HIV and other sexually transmitted conditions are also still out there, and sometimes seem to have been forgotten about. The important message is to use barrier contraception. It can prevent pregnancy but also some unpleasant symptoms caused by other conditions.

Personal hygiene

There are plenty of food stalls at most festivals, and some people choose to cook for themselves. Food storage is often a challenge, so foods that need to be kept cool may be best avoided if you don’t have refrigeration.  Hand hygiene is probably the best thing we can all do. Soap and water is a great way to do this, however as a minimum take some alcohol hand rub. It’s cheap, widely available  and easy to use in a festival environment. Baby wipes are another favourite of the festival-goer, enabling people to have some sort of wash in their tents, and using for hand cleansing as required.

Drugs

Remember illicit substances such as cannabis, magic mushrooms, ecstasy etc. are illegal and people are very often searched for such substances on entering festivals. These substances do harm people and really expose them to further harm as their senses aren’t what they normally are. Even substances which seem to be used more frequently such as ‘laughing gas’ Nitrous Oxide (NO2) (Glastonbury cleared up 2 tons of N02 canisters last year) are potentially harmful and inhaling pressurised gases is not a good idea. If you are caught with illicit substances you can be ejected from the festival by security or could be charged by the police, who are present at most festivals.

There has been a lot of publicity on the so-called ‘legal highs’. These really can cause harm and even death. The reason that these were deemed ‘legal’ was because many were sold as ‘not for human consumption’ as a plant food, and that it was virtually impossible to keep legislation up to date with ever changing chemical formulations. The Home office have stated that ‘many ‘legal highs’ are sold under brand names like ‘Clockwork Orange’, ‘Bliss’, ‘Mary Jane’ and have been directly linked to poisoning, emergency hospital admissions including in mental health services and, in some cases, deaths.’

Alcohol

Although it’s a festival and time to ‘let your hair down’ do try not to drink to excess! Some people do and when it’s cold and wet people really do become hypothermic, when it’s warm and sunny they become sun burnt and can suffer from heatstroke. Festivals are generally safe environments with caring people around, but losing the ability to have your wits about you or lowering you inhibitions can expose you to harm. It really is important that you ‘look after yourself, but also look after each other’. If friends are drunk and incapable, ensure that you look after them making sure that they are safe both medically and physically so that they aren’t exposed to any predatory people or unwise liaisons, whilst they are ‘off their trolley’. Festivals can be hard to find your way around, and extremely frightening if you are not in full control of your faculties. Trying to find a blue tent with a flag above it sounds achievable, but its virtually impossible in daytime let alone at night. Make sure friends stay together.

Medication

People attending festivals  also need to consider any prescription medicines that they are taking, ensuring that they have enough supplies and that it is stored appropriately. Some medicines will actually degrade if stored inappropriately. For medicines which require refrigeration, some medical services at festivals will store them for people, but please check with them before going and ensure that you store the medicines in a sealed bag or container, ensure that there are no uncovered or used sharps – such as needles and ensure that they are all appropriately labelled with your name and contact details. Many girls don’t consider their contraceptive pill as being a regular medicine, but it is. Some pills need to be taken at the same time or within a stricter timescale, ensure that you have enough supplies, and remember that although correct use maybe helpful to prevent pregnancy, it wont look after your entire sexual health, barrier contraceptives should also be used to give you better protection.

Medical help on site

There are usually vendors at larger festivals who sell over the counter medicines such as paracetamol and ibuprofen for those occasional ‘morning after’ headaches, however if you need prescription only medicines some of the larger events will have comprehensive medical services and even on-site pharmacies.

Glastonbury and Reading festivals  (amongst others) use a charity called Festival Medical Services (a charity run by volunteers which raises money through providing services at such festivals, which in turn donates these funds to medical charities around the world). FMS has a comprehensive service, with doctors, nurses, anaesthetists, dentists, radiographers, radiologists (providing both x-ray and ultrasound), ophthalmologists, psychiatrists and psychiatric nurses, chiropodists, physiotherapists and midwives. Smaller festivals obviously wont have the luxury of such a massive field hospital service, however they will all provide first aid services and although they are usually well signed, the ever-helpful stewards are a fantastic resource if you need direction to medical help.

Keep hydrated and safe in the sun

Ensure that you drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids to hydrate yourselves, people often reduce their intake of fluids as they don’t want to use the infamous festival toilets too often, however greater amounts of exercise, alcohol intake, dancing all mean that we need to replenish our fluid levels. Keep your feet warm and dry, if its wet and feet stay wet for prolonged periods, trench foot type conditions can be seen on a frequent basis. Stay covered up. If it’s wet, you need to prevent hypothermia, which again does happen particularly with increased alcohol intake. If it’s dry, cover up with sunscreen. Go for a high factor, and remember to reapply it at regular periods, and if you have been drinking try to stay out of the sun. Some health promotion services at Glastonbury do give out sun cream and even do mole checks.

Like I said, festivals are absolutely fantastic. I go with my wife and kids (who are now in their late teens). Glastonbury Festival has fantastic organisers, staff and volunteers and is a wonderful place to listen to bands, watch comedy, circus acts, crafts, eat and generally party. If you have a medical condition, then a bit of planning and organisation means that you can enjoy it as much as anyone else. However even if you don’t have any medical conditions, a little forethought and health promotion will mean that you too can enjoy the place and you will be less likely to have to come and visit me and my colleagues at Festival Medical Services (with the other 4000+ people that we see every year) – although we would of course all be very glad to see you!

Find out more about the health courses on offer at Birmingham City University.

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