On Your Health

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Summer Skin Challenges and Tips

We love the sunny skies and longer, fun-filled days of summer. Swimming, exercising more and spending time hiking and camping just come more naturally when the weather is warmer and there are more hours of daylight. All that sun and fun can do a number on our skin, though. Let’s talk about sunburn, heat rash and bug bites.

Sunburn

Back in the day, before we knew any better, the start of the summer season often came with a deep sunburn, the first one of the year. Sun worship in the 1970s and 1980s involved a coat of baby oil or zero-SPF deep tanning oil, with the understanding that you’d have to burn before you’d tan. In the 1990s and early 2000s, tanning beds were all the rage, which are as dangerous as the sun when it comes to skin cancer. Nowadays we cringe when we remember those eras and rightfully so.  

Sun damage of the skin can happen in as little as 15 minutes. Damaging rays, the ultraviolet or UV rays, can cause serious skin cancers like basal cell, squamous cell and Merkel cell carcinomas. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the country. The CDC reports that each year about 4.3 million adults are treated for basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.

Less lethal (but still troublesome) sun-related skin damage includes dry skin, photoaging and premature wrinkling, actinic keratosis (tiny, sandpaper-like bumps) and sunspots or other discolorations. Avoiding too much UV or sun exposure should begin in childhood. The effects of sun damage are cumulative.

Wearing protective clothing is an easy way to stay sun safe. Wear a hat with a wide brim and sunglasses to protect your face. Stick to the shade during the sunniest parts of the day: 10 am to 4 pm, March - October, and 9 am to 3 pm, November - February. Long sleeves and pants or long skirts offer plenty of protection but when the weather heats up, a more practical approach might be to slather on the sunscreen. A broad-spectrum SPF of 15 or higher is best, and regular reapplication is key.

SPF stands for sun protection factor. A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB rays; SPF 30 blocks 97 percent; SPF 50 blocks 98 percent and SPF 100 blocks 99 percent. For most, SPF 30 to 50 will provide adequate protection if used properly. 

Mineral sunscreen, also called physical sunscreen, contains either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and is a physical barrier between your skin and the sun’s rays, like a shield. Chemical sunscreen absorbs the sun’s rays, preventing damage from occurring, like a sponge. The choice is subjective. Mineral sunscreens can be thicker and harder to rub in. The best sunscreen choice is whichever one you like to use.

Heat rash

Sometimes referred to as prickly heat or miliaria, a heat rash occurs when sweat gets trapped in blocked pores. It can look like red bumps or blisters and can be extremely itchy or painful or prickly. It’s common in people of all ages. Babies most often experience heat rash around the neck, chest and shoulders. Areas of the body where skin creases like underarms, groin, elbow creases and the backs of knees are also prime spots for heat rash.

Heat rash can be mild or merciless, depending on which type it is. Miliaria crystallina is the mildest form, and only affects the sweat ducts/pores on the top layer of the skin, causing clear blisters that break easily. Slightly deeper heat rash, miliaria rubra, causes red bumps that are itchy or prickly. When miliaria rubra bumps become inflamed, they can fill with pus, at which point they transform into miliaria pustulosa. When heat rash affects the deeper skin layer (dermis), it forms weeping, flesh colored lesions and goes by the moniker miliaria profunda. 

Usually heat rash clears up on its own, but if symptoms last more than a few days or if you notice the rash worsening or becoming infected, it’s time to talk with a doctor or health care provider. Signs of infection are pain, swelling, warmth and redness; drainage; fever and/or swollen lymph nodes.

Tropical climates, becoming overheated, prolonged bed rest and physical activity can all play a role in causing heat rash. Newborns are most susceptible because their sweat ducts aren’t fully developed.

Treating heat rash can be as simple as cooling down and allowing the rash to clear. Calamine lotion can soothe an itchy rash. Anhydrous lanolin, available from several makers over-the-counter, can prevent new lesions and, in the worst cases, topical steroids can be prescribed.

Prevention is all about keeping your cool. Dress in loose, lightweight clothing, spend time in the shade or in air-conditioned indoor spaces. Bathe in cool water, use fragrance-free soaps and let your skin air dry. Stick with calamine lotion for itch relief and avoid lotions or creams that contain mineral oil or petroleum jelly because they’re known pore-cloggers.

Bites and stings

Insect bites and stings are zero fun. If you spend lots of time in outdoors, or in your own back yard, you may suffer the occasional bug bite. Bee stings, mosquito bites and other unpleasant encounters are usually itchy, maybe even painful, but typically not too serious. In rare instances, bites and stings (think bee, wasp, hornet, fire ant or scorpion) can trigger severe reactions. Some insects also carry disease, such as West Nile virus.

What to look for:

  • Bee stings leave a red welt ringed in white.
  • Flea bites leave really itchy little welts on the skin, often on the ankles and legs.
  • Mosquito bites are raised, itchy pink skin bumps. In rare cases they cause a severe allergic reaction.
  • Spider bites cause minor symptoms like red skin, swelling, and pain at the site or very serious symptoms that need emergency care.
  • Ticks can carry Lyme disease. Their bite leaves a rash that looks like an expanding bull’s-eye.

Treating a mild sting or bite:

  • Move indoors or to a safe area to avoid more bites or stings.
  • Remove the stinger if one has been left behind.
  • Wash the area with soap and water.
  • Soothe the area with a cloth, dampened with cold water or filled with ice to help reduce pain and swelling. If the injury is on an arm or leg, elevate it.
  • Dab the bite or sting with a little calamine lotion, baking soda paste or 0.5 or 1 percent hydrocortisone cream every few hours until symptoms go away.
  • Take an antihistamine like Benadryl to ease itching.

Call 911 if the stung or bitten person experiences:

  • Hives
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • A scorpion sting and is a child
  • Nausea, cramps
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion, dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Swelling of the eyelids, lips or throat

In an emergency like this, ask if the person has an emergency device like an epinephrine autoinjector pen, and whether they need help using it. Loosen snug clothing, cover the person with a blanket and don’t offer anything to drink, they may choke. Begin CPR if the person shows no signs of circulation, such as movement or breathing.

For more lifestyle content and health tips to keep yourself well this spring and summer, visit the INTEGRIS Health blog.

 

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