Western North Carolina is known for its mountain scenery — its canopies of green that provide shade for outdoor adventurers. And, although we’re far from a sunny, tropical isle, it’s important to remember: We’re not immune to the effects of the stifling summer sun.
As summer begins and the temperature turns up in the Asheville area, Mercy Urgent Care urges you to keep your cool, whether you’re hard at work in the sunshine or floating down the French Broad River.
How much sun is too much sun?
More than 1.3 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year in the United States — and sun exposure, by far, is the No. 1 culprit for developing the disease. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes — and, in addition to skin cancer, sun damage can lead to painful sunburns, premature skin aging and skin damage.
Though prolonged sun exposure can be harmful to everyone, people with blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes, fair skin, freckles and moles are especially susceptible to the sun’s harmful rays. People of all skin tones, however, must take proper precautions and protect their skin to help prevent skin damage and skin cancer.
Certain medications — such as antibiotics, antidepressants and retinoid-based acne medications — can also increase an individual’s sensitivity to the sun.
While many have felt the painful sting of a mild to moderate sunburn, the sun is capable of causing severe skin burns that produce large blisters, cause abdominal cramping, weakness, flulike symptoms, fever or chills, headache and a rapid pulse rate.
Reducing harmful sun exposure:
Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen. In addition to every point below, you should always apply sunscreen before spending time outdoors — even on cool or cloudy days. Use sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15. SPF numbers indicate the product’s effectiveness at blocking UV rays, with higher numbers meaning higher rates of protection. And remember: Sunscreen wears off, especially if you’re sweating, swimming or toweling off, so reapplication is necessary if you’re outside for two or more hours.
Seek out shade. Reduce your risk of skin damage by finding shade outdoors — whether that means taking an umbrella on your tubing adventure or standing under a leaf-laden tree.
Wear protective clothing. Long-sleeved shirts and long pants, hats and sunglasses go a long way in protecting the skin (and the eyes) from UV rays. Hats with wide brims that encircle the head offer the best protection, shading your face, ears and the back of your neck. Even with protective clothing, you should still apply sunscreen if spending prolonged periods of time outdoors, as the typical T-shirt has an SPF rating lower than 15.
What about heat illnesses?
So you’ve applied SPF 100 and you’re sporting a wide-brimmed hat. What could go wrong?
Even in the mountains, summer heat is no joke. Every year in the United States, around 400 deaths are attributed to excessive natural heat. These deaths are all preventable. Heat-related illnesses occur when the body fails to cool itself after being exposed to high temperatures, resulting in illnesses like heat rash, sunburn, heat cramps, heat exhaustion or heat stroke, listed in order from mild to severe.
Think of your body as a hard-working machine. The harder it works, the more heat is produced. It comes equipped with processes to cool itself down, but the system can malfunction when overworked — especially when outside influences like high temperatures, humidity and certain medications are thrown into the mix.
Know the symptoms:
When the body begins to overheat, it sends out signals to let you know. Early symptoms of heat-related illnesses include fatigue, heavy sweating, headache, dizziness, nausea and a high pulse rate. Patients may begin to feel faint or weak, develop muscle cramps and notice clamminess of the skin.
As heat-related illnesses progresses, an individual may begin to experience life-threatening symptoms, such as a high body temperature, confusion, convulsions or fainting. Due to severe dehydration, patients may also have red, hot and dry skin.
Preventing heat illnesses:
It’s especially important to pay attention to your body when exposed to excessive heat. Knowing and watching for the symptoms of heat-related illnesses is part of the prevention process, but there are ways to avoid feeling ill altogether:
Stay well-hydrated (with the right beverages). Drink plenty of water, even if you do not feel thirsty — and avoid caffeine, sugary drinks and alcohol. These drinks affect the body’s temperature even without excess heat, speeding up the heart rate, elevating blood pressure and causing the body to dehydrate faster. Staying hydrated helps the body to sweat, and sweat is your natural defense against heat.
Wear the right clothing and protect against sunburn. It’s important to minimize the skin’s exposure to the sun, but it’s also vital to allow it to breathe. Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing, sunglasses, bandannas, wide-brimmed hats and sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. The key is to find a breathable balance, allowing sweat to easily evaporate, while also protecting the skin from sunburn, which adversely affects the body’s ability to cool itself. Excessive clothing or equipment decreases the body’s tolerance for heat. Sunscreen should be reapplied at least every two hours — more often if swimming or sweating.
Pace yourself or change your schedule. Whether you’re working or adventuring, allow yourself frequent breaks in the shade or in air conditioned buildings. Taking breaks allows the body to recover and cool itself between bouts of heat exposure. This is especially important during the hottest parts of the day, when the sun is directly overhead. If at all possible, try to schedule exercise or outdoor work in the early mornings or evenings.
Take note of personal factors and medication side effects. Unfortunately, some people are more susceptible to heat illnesses than others, and it’s especially important for those individuals to recognize the increased threat. Small children and adults over 65 have an increased risk, as well as those with chronic conditions — or individuals who are not used to hot weather. Many medications also affect the body’s ability to tolerate high temperatures, stay hydrated and dissipate heat. If you take any medications, be aware of the side effects andkeep a watchful eye on your body. If you do have an increased risk of heat illness, notify others in your group. Run through a list of early symptoms with those around you, and make sure they know what to do in case of emergency.
Treating heat illness:
If you or someone you know is experiencing the early symptoms of a heat-related illness, immediately stop all activity, move to a cooler place to rest and sip water or an electrolyte replenishing sports drink. For individuals experiencing heat exhaustion, loosen any clothing items, place cool, wet cloths on the body or take a cool bath.
If the individual begins to vomit, has a history of heart problems or experiences worsening or prolonged symptoms, seek medical help right away.
For severe symptoms that may indicate heat stroke — such as fainting, high fever, confusion, dry skin and a fast, strong pulse — call 911 right away. Heat stroke is a medical emergency, and can be fatal without medical intervention. While waiting for medical professionals, move the individual to a cooler place, remove excess clothing and help lower the body temperature by whatever means available, concentrating ice packs or cool, wet cloths around the neck, armpits and groin. If the person is not alert or is vomiting, do not give him or her anything to drink.