Summertime! Your Guide to Staying Safe & Healthy

MAY 31, 2016

Warm weather. Long days. No school! Summer is here at last and whether you are staying close to home, hitting the beach or flying off to an adventure in a faraway land, there are several things Texas Health Care doctors want you to keep in mind in order to stay safe and healthy this summer.

The Heat is On

“Warm” doesn’t really begin to describe North Texas weather in the summer. It’s hot, hot, hot – especially in July and August. “People need to take precautions when spending time outdoors in the summer months,” says Dr. John Briscoe, a primary care and Internal Medicine physician. “If you spend too much time in the heat – especially if you’re not drinking enough water – it’s easy to get dehydrated and suffer heat exhaustion”

Heat exhaustion occurs when a person loses too much water and salt from their bodies, leading to symptoms such as fatigue, weakness, nausea, heavy sweating and shallow breathing. If you experience symptoms such as these, get to a cool area (preferably inside) and drink plenty of water or other fluids, as long as they’re not carbonated or alcoholic. Applying a cool cloth or taking a cool bath can also aid recovery from heat exhaustion.

“The most important thing you can do to avoid heat exhaustion is to stay hydrated, especially if you are outdoors for any length of time,” says Dr. Curtis Evans, a primary care and Internal Medicine physician. “The backyard BBQ is a great American and Texas tradition – but make sure you have plenty of water and a seat in the shade. And throwing back a few beers while you’ve got the meat on the grill is a sure-fire way to dehydrate yourself, so watch the alcohol.”

More dangerous than heat exhaustion is heat stroke. Heat stroke occurs when the body gets extremely overheated and is unable to regulate its internal temperature. A person suffering from heat stroke can quickly reach a temperature of up to 106 degrees Fahrenheit. Symptoms of heat stroke include hallucinations, chills and dry, hot skin. If you think someone may be suffering from heat stroke, call 911 immediately and get the person to a cool area and soak them in cool water.

Drinking plenty of water, along with wearing loose-fitting and light-colored clothing (light colors reflect sunlight, whereas dark colors absorb it) are two of the most important things you can do to avoid heat-related illnesses in the summer. And be mindful of how long you’ve been outdoors, don’t overdo it with physical activity and stay in the shade whenever possible.

Protect Your Skin

The heat isn’t the only reason to stay in the shade. The sun’s ultraviolet rays can cause sunburn almost immediately, causing skin to redden and become painful and itchy. More problematic, sustained sun exposure can damage the skin’s cells over the long term and lead to cancer of the skin, which is the most common type of cancer among women and men in the United States.

There are two types of UV rays – UVA and UVB. UVA rays penetrate the skin and are responsible for premature aging signs, such as wrinkles and spots. UVB rays primarily affect the surface of the skin, causing sunburn. Anyone who spends time in the sun is susceptible to skin cancer, but that’s especially true of fair-skinned people.

“Sun exposure is an inevitable part of living in Texas,” says Dr. Emily McLaughlin, a plastic surgeon. “The ultraviolet light in the sun’s rays damages the skin, resulting in accelerated aging, wrinkles and potentially skin cancers. The most essential step in protecting your skin from these changes is the use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 20 or higher and protection from UVA and UVB rays.”

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The higher the SPF, the more protection the sunscreen provides, but an SPF of 40 is not twice as protective as an SPF of 20.

“Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours or after getting out of the water,” says Dr. Larry Reaves, who is also a plastic surgeon. “And if you’ve got some sunscreen in the cabinet from last summer, just check the expiration date before you use it. If it’s expired, it won’t work well – throw it out and buy new sunscreen. It’s well worth it.”

Finally, wear a hat with a brim that will shade your face, ears, and neck and use sunglasses that provide UV protection.

Beat the Bugs

There has been a lot of attention in the last few years on the West Nile virus and more recently, the Zika virus, both of which are serious illnesses spread by mosquitos. West Nile virus has been present in mosquitos in Texas for several years, while as of May 2016, the Zika virus has not yet appeared in mosquitos in the United States. Scientists predict that will change at some point, however. There are several things you can do to protect yourself from mosquitos.

Mosquitos breed where there is standing water, so be sure that the area around your house drains well. Most importantly, says Dr. Jeffrey Tessier, an infectious disease specialist, “Always use insect repellent with DEET when outdoors – DEET has proven effective in repelling mosquitos that can carry West Nile and Zika. It is also safe and encouraged to use insect repellent and sunscreen at the same time.”

In North Texas, cities routinely spray neighborhoods for mosquitos where West Nile has been detected. With respect to Zika virus, while there have been Americans infected, so far all the cases have been in people who traveled to and contracted the virus in another country. While Zika virus has not appeared in mosquitos in the United States, the virus is present in South America and Mexico. It is likely only a matter of time before Zika virus is present in mosquitos in Texas, further underscoring the need to take precautions. Women who are pregnant must be especially careful, as Zika is particularly dangerous to them.

If you are planning to travel to another country this summer, check the U.S. Centers for Disease Prevention and Control for updated travel alerts on the Zika virus.

Stay Safe in the Great Outdoors

For many families, summer is the time to go camping or visit the beach. A brush with poison ivy or encounter with a jellyfish can turn a fun trip into a miserable experience, so take these precautions when outdoors:

Three Leaves? Stay Clear!

If you’re going hiking or camping, take the time to learn what poison ivy looks like and be sure to avoid it. The allergic reaction the plant’s oil causes when it comes into contact with human skin is nothing short of agonizing. While it’s not a serious threat to one’s health, it can make you miserable. Less common in Texas are poison oak and poison sumac – both of these plants produce reactions similar to poison ivy. If you do come in contact with one of these plants, the best treatment is to wash the affected area with cool water and use calamine lotion to relieve itching.

Venomous Spiders

There are two types of poisonous spiders in the United States and both are present in Texas: the brown recluse and black widow. A bite from one of these spiders causes intense pain, redness, and swelling and can lead to skin necrosis, in which the cells in the skin begin to die. If you’ve suffered a bite that is producing unusually painful or long-lasting reactions, get to a doctor or hospital right away. Venomous spider bites can be treated with oral and intravenous antibiotics. Minimize your chances of spider bites by taking precautions in heavily wooded areas, such as wearing long clothing and close-toed shoes.

Look out for Jellyfish

For many families, summer is not complete without a trip to the beach. Watch where you step when you’re walking through the sand, however. If you step on a jellyfish, you’ll have a painful and possibly dangerous experience. Most jellyfish stings result in immediate pain and reddening of the skin. If stung by a jellyfish, remove any tentacles that become embedded in the skin and wash the affected area with seawater. Rinsing the area with vinegar can also help to deactivate any stingers that were dislodged. Finally, soak the affected area in hot water for a few minutes. In rare cases, a jellyfish sting can cause a systemic reaction and require immediate medical attention.

Avoid Accidents

Some of the most common accidents in the summer involve the water. Never leave children unattended in the water, whether it’s at the pool or the lake. It can take only a minute for a child to slip underwater and drown.

If you’re out boating on the lake, have fun – but remember, alcohol and water do not mix. According to Texas Parks and Wildlife, alcohol plays a role in one-half of all boating accidents. Furthermore, the same rules that apply to driving also apply to boating in Texas: if you have a blood alcohol level of 0.08 of higher, you can be charged with boating while intoxicated.

Lifejackets are also a must if you’re in a boat. Texas law requires that every boat has one life jacket for each person on board and that all children under the age of 13 wear a life jacket at all times (in a boat less than 26 feet long).

Another common and completely avoidable accident involves fireworks. “It wouldn’t be the Fourth of July without fireworks,” says Dr. J. Mark Bayouth, a trauma surgeon. “But do not buy and set off fireworks yourself – leave it to the professionals and go watch them. There are too many stories of people being burned or losing an eye or a finger to fireworks – don’t take the chance.”

Work Smart in the Yard

For a lot of folks, summertime means yard work. We like our lawns to look good, which means mowing, trimming, edging, and more. However, if you don’t take the proper safety precautions, you could end up in the emergency room.

“If you’re using power equipment of any kind, always follow the safety instructions that come with the machine,” says Dr. Raj Gandhi. “As a trauma surgeon, I’ve seen far too many serious injuries stemming from yard equipment, which can include loss of fingers, toes and eyes. These injuries can all be avoided by following safety guidelines.”

As Dr. Gandhi says, always read and follow the specific instructions for your equipment. In general, though, you should wear close-toed shoes and long pants when using power lawn equipment to protect yourself from flying debris, which can cause lacerations. Always keep your hands and feet away from blades, even when the machine is powered off. Wear sunglasses or other eye protection to shield your eyes from flying debris, particularly when using an edger or string trimmer. And utilize ear protection, as lawn equipment produces loud noise which can cause hearing loss over time.

“If you suffer from asthma or allergies, it’s also a good idea to wear a face mask to reduce the amount of dust and pollen you breathe in,” recommends Dr. Tahir Ali, an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

Have a Happy Summer

The summer months should be fun, enjoyable and hopefully a time to create good memories with your family and friends. By taking a few precautions and using some common sense, you can avoid having to spend part of your summer at the doctor’s office or a hospital.

From all of us at Texas Health Care, we hope you have a safe and fun summer. Stay cool!

This article contains material sourced from:

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Texas Parks and Wildlife

The National Institutes of Health

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