Summer: Have Fun But Stay Safe
By Ghanem Abusbeih, M.D.
Medical Director, Saint Anthony’s Emergency Department
Whether you’re lounging by the pool, working in the yard or hiking in the woods, summer is a time for relaxing, doing the things you want to do...but also for staying safe from lurking dangers such as sunburn, heat stroke, fireworks, bug bites, poison ivy and foodborne illness.
SUNBURN: You may remember the blistering sunburn you got at the beach when you were in high school. The misery you felt at the time was bad enough, but it also put you at increased risk of melanoma, the most severe type of skin cancer. Anyone can get skin cancer, but the risk is highest in persons with fair skin, light hair and blue eyes...who spend long hours in the sun.
The best way to protect yourself is to stay out of the sun, particularly during the time when the rays are most intense, from 10 a.m to 4 p.m. When you do venture out, the best plan is to wear more, rather than less, clothes – a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and cotton clothing with a tight weave.
On unprotected skin, apply sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher. Apply it 30 minutes before going out and every two hours.
Babies under six months need special protection as do persons taking medications that increase sensitivity to the sun. These include NSAIDs and some diuretics and antibiotics.
HEAT STRESS: If you’re working in the heat, exercising or just sitting on your couch on a day when the temperature and humidity are in the 90s, you may be at risk of heat stress.
Persons most at risk are athletes who don’t drink enough water, children, persons age 65 and over and those with health conditions such as diabetes, obesity and heart disease. Alcohol use increases the risk as do medications such as antihistamines, tricyclic antidepressants and diuretics. Children, older adults or pets left in an automobile on a sunny day can develop serious over-heating within minutes, even when a window is partially rolled down.
Early symptoms of heat exhaustion include thirst, fatigue and cramps in the legs or abdomen. When experiencing those symptoms, you should stop what you’re doing and find a shady place to drink fluids and cool down. Call 9-1-1 or get to the closest emergency room.
Left untreated, heat exhaustion progresses to heat stroke with symptoms that include dizziness, headaches, nausea, rapid heartbeat and body temperature as high as 105 degrees. Damage to the liver, kidneys and brain can be severe enough to cause death.
Everyone needs extra fluids during hot weather. Older persons and others at risk of heat stroke should also seek out cool spots. If you don’t have air conditioning at home, make frequent excursions to the mall, grocery store, library or coffee shop.
Runners and other athletes should gradually acclimate themselves to training in the heat over a period of 10 days to two weeks. They should also replace fluids lost during exercise by drinking water or sports drinks before, during and after exercise. Sports exercise specialists recommend drinking 15 to 20 ounces before exercise and 8 to 10 ounces every 15 minutes during activity. After exercise, drink 20 to 24 ounces of fluid for every pound you’ve lost.
FIREWORKS: Many states outlaw consumer sales of fireworks. Whether your state does or not, the wise approach is to leave the fireworks to professionals who have proper equipment and know the rules of safety.
If you’re in a place where amateurs are using fireworks, leave the area immediately.
BUG BITES: Ticks, mosquitoes and other insects are all part of the hiking or camping experience. Bug bites are usually harmless, but there are notable exceptions.
Lyme disease is caused by bacteria transmitted to humans by the black-legged deer tick. Check yourself and your children for ticks each night before going to bed. If you find a tick, remove it with tweezers, place it in a plastic bag and throw it away.
Lyme disease may start with a small red spot that grows larger. The rash may resemble a bulls eye, and the infected person may develop muscle aches and stiff joints.
West Nile virus, transmitted by mosquitoes, typically produces only mild symptoms in healthy persons. About one percent of infected persons, however, develop severe illness with flu-like symptoms that can lead to death.
Insect repellant containing DEET is your best protection, but don’t use it on babies and use only 10-30 percent for children over two months of age.
POISON IVY: You don’t have to leave your yard to be attacked by poison ivy.
Both poison ivy and poison oak grow on plants with clusters of three leaves. Each leaf also has three small leaflets. So the saying should be: “Leaflets of three, let it be!”
If you know you’re going to be working around poison ivy, wear long sleeves, long pants, boots and gloves. Promptly wash your garden tools and any clothing that comes in contact with poison ivy. If you get poison ivy or oak on your skin, rinse immediately. Wash first with water only to avoid moving and spreading the oil from the poison ivy. Then take a shower with soap and warm water.
The rash itself can be treated with oatmeal soap, calamine lotion and over-the-counter antihistamines.
FOODBORNE ILLNESS: Your mother may have fussed about potato salad at summer cookouts or picnics. In fact, foods containing mayonnaise are no more vulnerable than other foods to the rapid growth of bacteria such as E. coli, salmonella, cyclospora and hepatitis A.
Undercooked beef and sausage are likely sources, but foodborne illness can also be obtained from contaminated produce, even lettuce or tomatoes.
Always be sure to keep raw and cooked foods separate. Never place cooked meat back on the platter where it rested before it went on the grill.
Another basic rule is to keep hot food hot (above 140 degrees) and cold food cold (under 40 degrees). Don’t leave food out for more than two hours, nor for more than an hour when the temperature is over 90 degrees.
It’s estimated that at least 70 percent of Americans have experienced some type of medical emergency during the summer months – ranging from food poisoning to a near drowning. A few safety precautions can help you keep your summer days relaxed and carefree.
Saint Anthony’s Emergency Department is staffed by a team of specially trained emergency medicine physicians and nurses, providing expert care 24/7. For more information, 618-474-6260.