by Tod Westlake
After a too-long winter and a somewhat latent spring, you’re probably of a mind to hit the ground running when it comes to rediscovering the great outdoors. We can hardly blame you. Like you, we were cooped up for far too long, growing ever fatter and more pasty-faced as we awaited the return of warmer weather. Exercise and sunshine in copious doses are what we all need, no doubt. But it’s also a good idea to look before we leap.
A little bit of planning can go a long way when it comes to avoiding some of the downsides of summer—whether it’s a bad sunburn, a bite from an unpleasant insect, heat exhaustion, or a twisted ankle. A few minutes of preparation can prevent days, or even weeks, of misery. Thus, we took it upon ourselves to seek out advice on how to avoid the worst that summer has to offer. Doctor Sharagim Kemp of Health Quest Medical Practice in Rhinebeck was kind enough to provide us with some expertise on how to keep ourselves safe and healthy as we dive into summer.
Remember the Sun
Or, better yet, have respect for the sun. And having respect for the sun means being aware of its effect on your body. When you are out enjoying a sun-filled day, remember that heat exhaustion and sunburn are always a possibility. Kids and senior citizens, especially, should take care. And, of course, long-term exposure to the sun over many years can result in wrinkles, or worse—skin cancer.
Dr. Kemp says that her office sees cases of skin cancer fairly often and that it’s always a good idea to seek an expert opinion if you are unsure about something you see on your skin. “As doctors, we are trained to look for signs,” Kemp says. “And, generally speaking, diagnosing a potentially cancerous growth should be left to the doctor.”
Fortunately, an early diagnosis can lead to successful treatment. And, certainly, being aware of your body is important. Kemp recommends special vigilance on those areas that are sun-exposed on a regular basis—the scalp, face, lips, ears, chest, and arms—as these locations are the likeliest spots for skin cancer to develop. We all have minor skin blemishes, most of which we don’t need to worry about. “If you have a mole, or freckles, or one of these little red spots, or anything that has been on your skin with no change in the color, the texture, or the shape, that’s not skin cancer,” Dr. Kemp says. Any change in the skin after sun exposure, particularly if you’ve been recently sunburned, should be brought to the attention of a doctor. In fact, just to be on the safe side, it is a good idea to have a doctor examine your skin at annual physicals, even if you have not noticed any concerning blemishes.
If you’re outdoors a lot, particularly if you work outdoors, you are probably already aware of the importance of covering up. Wearing a hat with a broad brim and using sunscreen with a minimum “sun protection factor” of at least 30 is a good idea. “The best thing is to wear long sleeves and long pants if you can,” Kemp says. “But the lotions and the creams really do work well. The mistake people make is not putting it on at least fifteen minutes prior to going out, as it takes time for the active ingredients to be absorbed by the skin. It’s also really important to reapply sunscreen every couple of hours, as sweating reduces its effectiveness over time, or after you’ve been swimming. Waterproof sunscreens are available for those who spend a lot of time in the water. And, perhaps most importantly, be sure that the sunscreen includes “broadband” protection, which includes both UVA and UVB parts of the spectrum.
And if you are engaging in outdoor activities over a length of time, be sure to be mindful of how easy it is to become dehydrated. Those who are over the age of 30 often have trouble recognizing this, so err on the side of caution. “When you’re thirsty, your brain is sending signals to your body that say, ‘please, please, I need water,’” Dr. Kemp says. “You should be well ahead of the curve and not let yourself feel thirsty. That’s always the rule.”
Tick, Tick, Tick
Don’t let this miniscule parasite keep you indoors. Educate yourself about the dangers of tick bites and head out the door. A little vigilance, Dr. Kemp says, can help increase your peace of mind.
“The problem is we really don’t understand the true lifecycle of this tick,” Kemp says, adding that scientists at first thought it could be the larger, fully grown ticks that are causing the disease. “But it’s actually the nymph cycle that we worry about. And Lyme disease is not as summer-related as we used to think. With the warmer weather [because of climate change], we’re seeing Lyme disease in the wintertime now.” Of course, we tend to bundle up in the winter and wear long pants, which has the effect of reducing the skin that is exposed to a potential tick bite. But summer means fewer clothes, particularly on our legs, which are the most vulnerable spot when it comes to tick bites.
For a more comprehensive view of ticks, the diseases they carry, and how to deal with a tick bite, Dr. Kemp strongly recommends visiting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website at cdc.gov. The CDC has tons of helpful information on things like the most effective tick repellents, how to avoid exposure by staying out of areas that ticks like to hang out, such as tall grass, and how to ensure your pets remain safe and healthy—and that they don’t bring any unwanted critters with them into the house.
Tick-related problems have increased in their rate of prevalence in recent years, Dr. Kemp says. “The CDC can tell you the prevalence has increased so significantly that they now make us report any incidents.” Dr. Kemp notes that this part of the country is particularly hard-hit when it comes to ticks. “If you look at the CDC graphs of the United States for 2011, the highest concentration of cases are in the Northeast, right here in New York.”
If you have been bitten, Kemp recommends that you actually save the little critter so that it can be sent off for testing. And not all ticks carry Lyme, so there is no need to panic. The CDC recommends using tweezers to carefully remove the tick and to avoid folk remedies, such as painting the tick bite with nail polish. “Removing the head is probably one of the most important things you can do,” Dr. Kemp says. “The head seems to be the area that still can continue to transmit.” You can purchase a tick removal kit online or at a local drugstore, and they are sometimes available through local civic organizations. Dr. Kemp recommends keeping one on hand at all times.
“If you think the tick has been on you for more than 48 hours, you really need to contact your doctor and have a good conversation about it,” Dr. Kemp says. Though not all infected people get a bull’s eye rash, it’s in the following days and weeks that the bull’s eye rash may appear. The center of the telltale bull’s eye rash will remain paler in color, while the edges of the rash, the concentric circle around the bite, will be a darker shade (sometimes not red). Sometime the rash can be as small as a quarter in size, and other times it can take up about the whole side of a person’s body. And it’s really less a rash than a bruise, according to Dr. Kemp, so it doesn’t itch oftentimes. “Even if you notice any rash after a tick bite, that needs to be discussed with your doctor,” Dr. Kemp says.
Checking yourself after a day in the sun, or having someone check areas of your body that are hard for you to see, is really important according to Dr. Kemp. Ticks need time to transmit their diseases, usually 36-48 hours. So, if you can fully remove the tick shortly after you’ve been bitten, you greatly reduce the chances of picking up something unpleasant.
So, have fun out there this summer. And remember that we can all benefit from the sun’s Vitamin D, a picnic in the garden, or a nice hike in the woods. Tempering your fun with a little common sense will allow you to do so safely.