Six Summer Health Hazards

A local expert shares tips on how to survive the dog days.

Ah, summer! Who doesn’t love long days at the beach, playing outdoor sports or simply gardening? But with summer fun can come an increased risk of unpleasant—and, in some cases, potentially fatal—illnesses and injuries. Here are some common summer health issues with tips on prevention, symptoms and when a trip to the emergency room might be in order.

1. Sunburn

“It’s all about prevention,” says James D’Amour, M.D., of Limestone Medicine and Pediatrics of Christiana Care Health System. Be sure to wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) and reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating. (And don’t forget the tip of your nose or the tops of your ears.) You can also wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, protective clothing or simply avoid the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

If sunburn occurs, you can alleviate the redness and discomfort with cool compresses, applying aloe vera and taking an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen. Seek immediate medical attention for a sunburn that forms blisters, covers a large area or if you experience vomiting, confusion or fever and chills, as that might indicate a case of sun poisoning.

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2. Heat-related Illness

Anyone can succumb to the heat, but older people, children, people who are obese and those who work and exercise outdoors are at increased risk. Heat-related illness occurs when people are exposed to high temperatures and don’t drink enough fluids.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include weakness, fatigue, muscle cramps, nausea and headache with normal to slightly elevated body temperature. Getting out of the heat and rehydrating with water or a sports drink will often remedy the situation, says D’Amour. 

Heat stroke is a life-threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention. Signs of heat stroke include mental confusion, delirium and a body temperature that rises to 106 degrees.

To prevent heat illness, stay hydrated. Drink water even if you’re not thirsty. “If you wait until you’re thirsty, you’ve waited too long,” says D’Amour. Wear light-colored, lightweight clothing that allows your body to breathe. Do heavy physical activity before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m. Take frequent breaks to rest in the shade or indoors.

3. Sprains, strains and fractures

Playing outdoor sports or simple backyard activities can increase the risk for bone and joint injuries. A sprain is an injury to a ligament surrounding a joint often caused by tearing or stretching the ligament. A fracture is a break in the continuity of a bone usually caused by impact or stress on the bone.

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Sprains typically present with bruising, swelling and redness around the affected joint. Fractures can exhibit many of the same characteristics but often exhibit some sort of bone deformity.

If you have significant swelling or cannot bear weight without excruciating pain, you may have a fracture and the injury should be evaluated by a healthcare professional, says D’Amour. Otherwise, self-care consisting of R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression and elevation) and anti-inflammatory pain medication can help remedy the situation until the injury heals.

4. Stinging insects

Late summer and early fall are the prime times for bees and wasps to attack. For most people, a sting is little more than a painful annoyance that involves immediate local pain and some minor swelling, says D’Amour. Cold compresses, an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory and antihistamine can help relieve the discomfort.

If the local reaction is larger and more severe, your healthcare provider might prescribe oral corticosteroids in addition to painkillers and antihistamines.

Symptoms that signal a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) requiring immediate medical care include hives, difficulty breathing, rapid heartbeat, nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, difficulty swallowing and confusion.

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There are a number of practical steps you can take to lessen your chances of becoming a target. Contrary to popular belief, stinging insects are less attracted to bright colors than they are to the bold colors and furry textures of their predators, according to Bees also have a penchant for anything that smells sweet, so be aware of what you’re wearing, eating or drinking. Keep areas clear of food and take care with any activities that could provoke a nest. If you inadvertently provoke a colony, cover your nose and mouth and quickly—but calmly—seek shelter.

5. Mosquitoes and West Nile Virus

A mosquito bite can turn into something more serious if you become infected with West Nile virus. Symptoms vary in severity. Mild forms of West Nile present with flu-like symptoms. More severe cases cause potentially fatal problems such as meningitis and encephalitis and require immediate medical intervention, says D’Amour. West Nile virus has no cure and no treatment, other than supportive treatment for symptoms, he says.

Prevention is key. Use insect repellent, wear long sleeves and pants and avoid the outdoors from dusk to dawn when mosquitoes are most active. Make sure window screens are intact and get rid of sources of standing water, such as pool covers, discarded tires and even toys strewn about the yard.

6. Poison Ivy

This condition is an allergic reaction to urushiol, an oily substance found in the leaves, stems and roots of poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac. Contrary to popular belief, the reaction does not spread. “What happens is some areas of the skin are more sensitive and they break out first, while other areas are less sensitive and break out a day or two later,” says D’Amour.

Cool showers and calamine lotion can provide relief until the situation resolves itself usually within one or two weeks.

In cases involving the face, eyes or genitals or when the rash covers large areas of your body, a prescription drug like prednisone may be needed to calm the body’s reaction, says D’Amour.

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