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The Dangers of Summer


It’s that wonderful time of the year, with days in the sun, walks in the woods, or just a Sunday afternoon cruise at Piedmont Park. Then later in the evening you return home to toss restlessly in bed with that painful sunburn, scratch furiously at that poison ivy rash, or ache with that throbbing insect bite. Or worse yet, you could have a severe reaction to that yellow jacket sting. You get the picture. So how do you manage and prevent those common summertime problems and get back out there soon?

Sunburn is the easiest to avoid. WEAR YOUR SUNSCREEN. However, if you forget, what do you do? While the long-term consequences of sun exposure—wrinkles and skin cancer—are devastating, sunburn is usually only a short-term nuisance. It almost always goes away in a few days. Rarely, a more severe burn, with actual blisters, can form. Most sunburns can be treated with cool compresses or baths, and soothing gels or creams. Gels with menthol, lidocaine, or aloe vera are particularly effective. Over-the-counter pain medications also are helpful. The anti-inflammatories medications, such as ibuprofen, are probably most effective because they reduce the reaction.

A more annoying and persistent summertime problem is poison ivy. It is an itchy, red rash with blisters that often lasts several weeks. The rash is caused by an allergic reaction to a resin secreted when the plant is damaged. Pets, clothes, or other objects that have touched the damaged plant can spread it. The resin is inactivated by water (especially with soap). It can be spread to others areas of the body or to other people, but not after the area is washed well with soap and water. It does appear to spread for several days, but these are only areas that were weakly exposed before washing and may take several days to break out. The most important prevention is avoidance. If you are allergic to poison ivy and plan to work in wooded areas, wear long sleeves and pants with gloves. There are barrier creams available that help some when put on before exposure. After exposure, remove contaminated clothes and wash with soap and water as soon as possible. Wash carefully around fingernails. Antihistamines and soothing creams will help relieve itching, but will not affect the rash. Hydrocortisone cream provides some relief, but strong prescription steroid creams are better. For more severe reactions, your doctor may prescribe steroid pills or shots.

Wasp and bee stings are one of the most dangerous summertime exposures. For everyone, they are very annoying, but for those allergic to them, they can be deadly. Everyone will have an immediate local reaction to a sting, with pain, redness, and swelling. The swelling can involve a large area, but is rarely dangerous. First aid for minor stings is to clean the wound with soap and water. Try to remove any stinger without squeezing the poison sack by gently sliding a fingernail or pointed object across the wound. Ice will reduce swelling and slow spread of the poison. Give Benadryl and over-the-counter pain medicines, if available. Multiple stings can lead to a toxic reaction, causing nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, dizziness, and weakness. This occurs 30 minutes to several hours after being stung and can be dangerous. The most severe reactions are allergic reactions that occur rapidly within 10 minutes to 1 hour. They usually start with itching and rash all over the body, followed by tongue and throat swelling and shortness of breath. This is a life-threatening emergency. Rapid transport to an emergency room is very important. If the person carries an epinephrine injection kit this should be given immediately. Anyone with a history of allergy to wasp stings should talk to their doctor about an epinephrine kit. Once again, prevention is the most important step. Bright colors and sweet smells attract bees and wasps. Avoid bright clothes or perfumes when going outdoors. If a wasp does come near you, move slowly away and do not swat at it.

With a little common sense and sunscreen, hopefully you can enjoy your summer without incident. However, if you do have one of these common summertime medical problems, now you will know a little more about how to care for it.


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