Physicians at Northwestern Memorial Offer Sun Safety Tips Just in Time for the Start Of Summer
As temperatures escalate, so should awareness of how to play safely in the summer sun
With warmer weather, extended daylight hours, and a host of outdoor activities to enjoy everyday, the summer season beckons all comers to take advantage of more time under the sun. With the official start of summer having launched, experts at Northwestern Memorial Hospital warn against overexposure to the sun, which can lead to heat-related illness.
“Many people assume that applying sunscreen once in the morning is sufficient protection for the entire day,” says Mary Martini, MD, Director of the Pigmented Lesion and Melanoma Clinic at Northwestern Memorial. “Sunscreen slows the effects of UV rays, but does not totally block them out. And, sunscreen’s effectiveness breaks down with sweating and swimming.”
Dr. Martini recommends that sunscreen be reapplied every two to four hours if outdoors for prolonged periods of time. As she explains, ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is a major, and often underestimated, cause of skin damage. Sunburn is a common, and painful, signal of overexposure to UV rays. In fact, over 90 percent of all skin cancers, including tumorous growths such as basal cell carcinomas and melanomas, are associated with UV radiation. Sunscreen is a powerful, year-round safeguard against sun damage and is especially crucial during summer when more skin is exposed.
Following are recommendations of guidelines that can help when choosing and applying sunscreen:
- For optimal results, identify broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreens with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15
- Those with allergies can try chemical-free sunscreens containing titanium or zinc oxide for hypoallergenic protection
- It’s advisable that children under 6-months-old be kept out of direct sun—period
- Sunscreens with an SPF between 30 and 50 are suitable for children ages 6 months to 12 years
- When applying sunscreen, don’t forget to cover the entire body, including the ears, tops of the feet and along the scalp where the hair is parted
Equally important to sunscreen is the prevention of heat exhaustion, which can occur when body temperatures rise to dangerous levels due to dehydration or overexertion in hot weather. One major culprit of heat exhaustion is the lack of proper liquid intake. Sweat acts as the body’s natural cooling system. But sweating also means that the body is losing essential fluids and salts or electrolytes. Replenishing the body with water and/or sports drinks can help maintain that cooling system.
Other measures to avoid heat exhaustion include:
- Limiting time spent outdoors if you aren’t accustomed to the heat
- Wearing loose clothing
- Avoiding strenuous outdoor activities during the hottest time of the day, which is typically between 11am and 3pm
- Refraining from intensive outdoor activity in high humidity, which can hinder sweat from evaporating quickly and prevent the body from releasing heat effectively
Rahul Khare, MD, a Northwestern Memorial emergency department physician, treats over 100 cases of heat exhaustion and other heat-related illnesses every summer. He says symptoms of heat exhaustion can vary, but generally include muscle cramping, aching pain, headaches, nausea, weakness, intense thirst, feeling faint or dizzy, or an increased pulse rate. Mild cases of heat exhaustion can typically be treated by applying cool water to the skin, loosening clothing or resting in a cool, shaded area. Seek medical attention if experiencing any confusion, disorientation or loss of consciousness; chest or abdominal pain; continuous vomiting; inability to drink fluids or a body temperature above 104 degrees Fahrenheit. These symptoms can signal an advanced state of heat exhaustion.
While overheating can occur in any healthy individual, the elderly, young children and people with certain medical conditions are at highest risk for heat-related illnesses. For those most susceptible, hot environments should be avoided whenever possible.
“So many people are eager to enjoy summer weather that they simply underestimate the risks,” Dr. Khare says. “It’s important to not take the hot weather for granted when enjoying summertime activities. But most of all, it’s important to take precautions that will keep you safe in the sun and healthy during the summer season.”