Health Letter, May 2023
By Fiona Lynn, M.P.S.
As summer approaches and warmer weather sets in, you may be looking forward to spending more time outdoors. Beach trips, barbeques, days at the pool and hiking excursions are all popular activities this time of year, and although they can be fun, they also come with risks — primarily exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays and heat. With a few simple precautions, though, you and your family can safely enjoy all of these activities and more.
Sunburn and skin cancer
One of the biggest risks of outdoor summer activities is exposure to sunburn- and cancer-causing UV rays from the sun. As cases of skin cancer continue to rise in the U.S., it is important to take steps to protect yourself from these harmful rays, especially in the summer months.
Sunscreen is one of the most important tools to keep yourself safe from sunburn and skin cancer. Choose a product with an SPF of at least 15 and that is labeled as broad spectrum — meaning that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Be sure to apply it over all exposed skin 15 minutes before going outside and to reapply according to the product directions. You may need to reapply more often if you are swimming or sweating.
Even highly protective sunscreens do not completely protect against UV rays, so additional measures should be taken to protect your skin. Whenever possible, stay in the shade; wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and a wide-brimmed hat; and choose sunglasses with a UV400 rating or “100% UV protection” on the label, as sunlight can damage your eyes as well as your skin. Avoid being outside between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun is brightest and the risk of sunburn is highest.
In addition to potential skin damage, extended time in the summer sun can put you at risk of overheating and heat-related illness, including heat exhaustion and heat stroke. In some cases, these conditions can lead to organ damage and even death.
Some of the steps that protect your skin from sun damage will also protect you from overheating. For instance, avoiding the outdoors during the hottest part of the day and staying in shady spots will help you to remain cool.
In addition, there are a few more precautions that can keep you from overheating while enjoying summer activities. Drink plenty of liquids, even if you do not feel thirsty; avoid alcohol and caffeine, because they can dehydrate you. Spend as much time as possible in air-conditioned spaces, and wear loose, lightweight clothing whenever you are outside. If you are participating in strenuous activities such as hiking or running, be sure to pace yourself and take breaks as needed.
If you experience symptoms of heat exhaustion (such as headache, nausea, dizziness, weakness, irritability, heavy sweating, elevated body temperature or decreased urine output), seek medical attention as soon as possible. In the meantime, leave the hot area for a cool, shady one; drink plenty of cool liquids; remove excess clothing; and apply cold compresses or splash your head, face and neck with cold water.
Symptoms of heat stroke, the most serious type of heat-related illness, include confusion, loss of consciousness, seizure, skin that is hot and dry, and very high body temperature. If someone you know is experiencing symptoms of heat stroke, call 911 immediately and take steps to lower their body temperature, such as moving them to a cool area, putting them in an ice bath or circulating the air around them.
Who is most at risk?
Anyone can experience the negative effects of too much sun and heat, so everyone should take reasonable precautions to protect themselves. However, some people face higher risks than others and should be especially careful.
People with pale skin; blond, red or light brown hair; or a personal or family history of skin cancer are at higher risk of sun damage and skin cancer. If you fall into one of more of these categories, take extra care to protect your skin when you are out in the summer sun, such as wearing a higher SPF sunscreen.
Those most likely to be affected by the heat include infants and young children, adults older than 65 years and people who have certain chronic illnesses or take certain medications. If you or your child belongs to one of these groups, take extra care to keep cool and watch for signs of overheating.
Don’t let excess sun and heat ruin your favorite summer activities. By taking a few simple steps, such as wearing broad-spectrum sunscreen, drinking plenty of liquids and staying in the shade, you can fully enjoy the warmest months of the year while avoiding their dangers.