Summertime, and the living is easy — if you stay healthy, that is. Summer's seasonal woes can creep up on you when you least expect them. Here are a few tips for staying cool, dealing with the sun's awesome radiant energy, managing poison ivy, and warding off the insects that like summer as much as you do.
Sunshine: Protect your skin
It's great to be outdoors in the summer. The sun is warm and bright — but too much sunshine will give you a painful burn. And even a "healthy" tan can cause trouble: over time, sun exposure will build up to increase your risk of melanomas and other skin cancers. Sun exposure will also produce premature aging and wrinkling of your skin.
Sunlight contains two forms of ultraviolet energy, UVA and UVB. Use a sunscreen that will protect you from both. Most products are effective against UVB, but many fail against UVA. Look for a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen; ingredients such as avobenzone and ecamsule are good for UVA, while oxybenzone and octocrylene add UVB protection. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide protect against both. Many sunscreen brands contain a mix of ingredients that provides protection against UVA and UVB.
Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. Apply it liberally 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure; the most common mistake is not forgetting to use sunscreen, but using too little. Remember to reapply it every two hours and after you swim or dry yourself with a towel. Even sweating can wash away protection.
Above all, don't let sunscreen give you a false sense of security. The only foolproof protection is to avoid sunlight as much as possible. Stay in the shade when you can, especially between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest. Try to stay away from reflective surfaces. Wear a hat with a big brim, pants, and long sleeves.
If you slip up and get burned, your skin will be red, sore, and swollen. Cold compresses will be soothing. Aspirin and other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (ibuprofen, naproxen, and others) or will help relieve inflammation and pain. If you cannot take those medications, acetaminophen (Tylenol and other brands) can help lessen your discomfort. If your sunburn is severe, you'll need extra fluids and rest. A steroid lotion or spray may also help.
Heat and humidity
Heat can turn an summer day into a medical crisis. But with simple precautions, you can stay safe this summer.
Your metabolism always generates heat, and when you exercise, your muscles crank out 20 times more. That's okay if body heat can pass out into cool air. As the temperature rises, though, cooling becomes difficult, then impossible. The evaporation of sweat can also take away lots of body heat, but as the humidity rises, this too becomes difficult, then impossible. Heat that can't be shed externally remains trapped in the body. That's when problems develop. Some are mild (muscle cramps), others serious (heat exhaustion), and some can be lethal (heat stroke).
A few simple precautions can keep you from overheating during the dog days of summer.
Avoid sunlight. Schedule your outdoor activity in the early morning or the evening to avoid direct sunlight and take advantage of the cooler temperatures.
Wear light-colored, loose garments.
Take it easy. Walk instead of jogging or use a cart instead of walking the golf course. Take breaks and quit early.
Don't exercise in extreme heat and humidity. If it's humid and above 80° or 85°, take a day off or head for the pool — or an air-conditioned health club.
Drink plenty of water. Drink 6 to 8 ounces of cool water before you get started, and pause frequently to drink. Even if you don't feel thirsty, drink again on your way to the shower.
Stay cool at home. Use an air conditioner or fans. If you can't cool down your house, go somewhere cool when it's really hot and humid.
Listen to your body. Fatigue, weakness, confusion, lightheadedness, nausea, labored breathing, chest discomfort, or a rapid or erratic pulse can all be signs of trouble. If you feel ill, get into a cool place and drink plenty of water. If you don't improve promptly, get help.
Sunny skies: Protect your eyes
The ultraviolet rays in sunlight can damage your eyes every bit as much as your skin. The cornea is at particular risk. Even a single intense exposure can cause photokeratitis, or sun blindness. The symptoms are pain and light sensitivity, often accompanied by redness, tearing, and uncontrollable blinking. Fortunately, the cornea will usually repair itself in 12 to 48 hours. But repeated low-level ultraviolet exposure can cause cumulative damage to the lens, ultimately resulting in cataracts. Sunglasses will prevent both problems if they have high-quality lenses that screen out UV rays. Avoid lenses that are rated as "cosmetic." Instead, look for sunglasses rated "general purpose" that absorb at least 95% of ultraviolet B rays and 60% of ultraviolet A. For intense exposures, turn to glasses with a "special purpose" rating; they absorb 99% of UVB.
Poison ivy, oak, and sumac can all cause contact dermatitis, which develops when the skin comes in contact with a chemical that triggers an allergic reaction.
The skin is red, swollen, and itchy. In severe cases, small blisters crop up, and clear fluid may seep from the skin.
Don't scratch or rub the inflamed skin. Compresses of cool, clean water can be soothing. Aspirin and similar pain relievers can reduce pain.
Steroid ointments will speed healing. Mild preparations such as hydrocortisone are available over the counter, stronger medications by prescription. If you have a severe case, your doctor may prescribe a steroid pill such as prednisone.
Finally, remember that the best treatment is prevention. Learn to recognize and avoid pesky plants.
Insect bites and stings
Summertime, and the stinging is easy. Most bites are little more than a nuisance, producing a brief ouch and a mild itch. Even the mildest bite, though, can have major consequences if the insect happens to be a mosquito carrying West Nile virus or a tick carrying the spirochete that causes Lyme disease. Other bites can cause considerable pain and swelling — and a few can trigger life-threatening allergic reactions in sensitive individuals.
Although most bites are mild and harmless, try to avoid them all. Clean out spider webs, hives, and nests; better still, get professional help if you're not sure how to do the job safely. When you're in an area with lots of ticks, wear shoes, socks, long sleeves, and pants; button your shirt cuffs; and tuck your pant legs into your socks. Light-colored garments will give you the best shot at spotting ticks. Avoid bright colors, floral patterns, and sweet scents that attract bees. Stay behind screens between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes rule.
Use insect repellents. Products containing DEET (chemical name, N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) are best for mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and fleas. Preparations with 10% to 30% DEET are safe and effective for adults. Protection lasts for several hours, but diminishes with swimming and heavy perspiration. Newer products that contain picaridin appear as effective as DEET, and oil of lemon eucalyptus (also known as PMD) can help, too. For extra protection against ticks, you can spray permethrin on your clothing; a single application will last for up to a week.
Preventing bites and stings is an important way to keep summer from bugging you. Add sun protection and simple measures to avoid pesky plants, and you'll be set to enjoy the great outdoors in summertime.