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Staying safe: Avoid summer health hazards

For many, summer is a time to relax by starting up the barbecue, swimming in the ocean or simply laying out in the sun.

But with warm weather come health risks. From sunburns to pollen or even an ill-cooked hamburger, the summer months can quickly turn unpleasant if the right precautions aren’t taken. Holyoke physician Dr. Glen Bombardier has seen them all, and offers the top five summer health hazards, and, more importantly, how to avoid them.

Sunburns

There’s no question that in New England, sunny days don’t come often enough. When they do, it can be tempting for many to soak up as much sun as possible. But experts warn that even a single sunburn can do lasting damage to the skin.

To enjoy the sun safely, Dr. Bombardier recommends following the recommendations of the American Academy of Dermatology and using water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen (which protects against UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Additionally, it is important to seek shade from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.

Water and sand can amplify the sun’s rays, so be extra careful during trips to the beach or the river. And be sure to reapply sun block every two hours as well as after going swimming.

If you do get burned, Dr. Bombardier recommends taking a cool bath and drinking lots of water since a sunburn draws fluid from the body. If the sunburn worsens or starts to blister, that’s when it’s time to see your physician.

Insects stings, bites

Another negative aspect of the great outdoors is being assaulted by various stinging and biting insects that only a beekeeper would welcome.

While many of these insects are merely a nuisance, for people who are allergic, they pose a clear and even deadly threat. The American College of Allergies, Asthma and Immunology estimates that two million Americans are allergic to insect stings, which includes people who are at risk of having a potentially fatal reaction to the venom of certain insects.

More than 500,000 Americans end up in the hospital every year due to insect stings and bites, and they cause at least 50 known deaths a year.

In addition to life-threatening reactions from bee or wasp stings, New Englanders know that warmer weather also means ticks. These small parasites can carry multiple diseases, including Lyme disease. In extremely rare cases their saliva can even lead to temporary paralysis.

To keep insects at bay during the spring and summer months, Dr. Bombardier recommends using an insect repellent when outdoors and putting screens over your windows to keep out pests such as mosquitoes. And, be certain to check yourself and your family for ticks after spending time in wooded areas.

Food poisoning

Who doesn’t like summer cook-out? But as the temperature rises, so does the risk of food-borne illness.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 48 million Americans become sick with food poisoning every year. Reactions to spoiled food can result in nausea, vomiting, fever or diarrhea.

To avoid having illness spoil your summer fun, the CDC recommends that foods prone to spoiling (meats, salads heavy in mayonnaise, etc.) not be kept unrefrigerated for more than two hours, or one hour in extremely hot weather, and that meat is cooked to the proper temperature.

Should you find yourself facing a bout of food poisoning, Dr. Bombardier recommends drinking clear fluids as much as possible to stay hydrated, and avoiding solid foods until vomiting has ended. If you suspect your poisoning is from seafood or mushrooms, or have a child who may become easily dehydrated, see a doctor immediately.

Poison ivy

Summer hikes are a great way to exercise and get outside, but one brush with poison ivy and a fun trek can become excruciating.

First, it’s important to identify yourself with poison ivy’s “leaves of three.” If you do accidentally come in contact with the plant, quickly wash the skin with soap and water to help minimize effects. The oily sap of the plant contains urushiol, which bonds to the skin after a few minutes of contact. The longer in contact with the body the worse the itchy-blistered rash.

Dr. Bombardier recommends using an over-the-counter medication such as a hydrocortisone cream, Calamine lotion, an antihistamine or an oatmeal bath to ease the symptoms.

Dehydration

Running around between soccer games and birthday parties or just waiting in line at the amusement park, it’s easy to forget to drink liquids, and that means dehydration.

Dehydration can happen any time of year, but it’s much more common in the summer months, when you are active outdoors in the warm sun. Heatstroke is the most severe form of dehydration. That’s when your internal temperature rises to dangerously high levels. Your skin gets hot, but you stop sweating. Someone with heatstroke may pass out, have hallucinations, or suffer seizures.

However, preventing dehydration and heatstroke is easy. Dr. Bombardier recommends drinking plenty of fluids, especially water, and taking regular breaks in the shade. Also, try to schedule your most vigorous outdoor activities for times when the heat isn’t so strong, such as early morning or late afternoon.

Those suffering more serious dehydration or heatstroke need to get indoors, lie down, and cool off with ice packs and cool cloths. Someone who is seriously affected by the heat may need intravenous fluids in the emergency room.

Lindsay Doak is a member of the YMCA of Hampshire County’s board of directors.

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