Aging baby boomers are spending more time than ever in front of the mirror, and enjoying it less. They are seeing lines and furrows on their faces that didn't used to be there.
All those years of soaking up rays are beginning to show. Freckles, wrinkles and rough red spots are sending 40-somethings to dermatologists in droves. To their horror, many are being diagnosed with cancer.
Although it is rarely a killer, skin cancer has become the most common kind of cancer in the world. Experts estimate that between 700,000 and 1.2 million new cases are diagnosed annually. And melanoma, a rarer but potentially deadly form of skin cancer, is increasing faster than any other cancer.
Sun exposure for the fun generation has led to a proliferation of actinic keratoses. These precancerous skin lesions may start as poorly defined red, scaly spots that sometimes go away, especially if a person uses sunscreen or avoids the sun. Less commonly, they can show up as tan, pink or grayish rough bumps. Some people describe them as feeling like having a briar under the skin.
Basal and squamous skin cancers often show up on the face, especially ears, lips, and nose -- places that are vulnerable to sun. A bump, a pimple or any sore that doesn't go away should checked out by a dermatologist. Any spot that appears pearly, thick or crusted and bleeds easily deserves attention.
The earlier any of these cancers are detected, the easier they are to treat. That is especially true for melanoma. Any mole that changes its appearance needs to be examined. Dermatologists look for irregular borders, apple-pie notches, and colors of red, white or blue mixed in with the brown. Any mole that itches or is larger than a pencil eraser could be a problem.
Prevention, of course, is paramount. While it may not be possible undo all the damage from decades of sunbathing, at least people can minimize further harm. This is especially important for people who are taking medications that may increase the risk of sun damage to the skin.
A surprisingly large number of drugs -- from diuretics, such as Dyazide, to diabetes medicines, such as DiaBeta, or such blood pressure pills as Capoten and Vasotec -- can make people more vulnerable to burns, rashes and other reactions to the sun. It is extra important for anyone taking such a medicine to use a hat, sunglasses, protective clothing and sunscreen to stay out of trouble.
We have prepared a brochure on Skin Care and Treatment that lists many drugs that increase sun sensitivity. It will tell you about sensible selection of sunscreens, how to achieve sunless tanning and how to use Retin-A to combat the results of past sun damage. Anyone who would like a copy, please send $2 with a long (No. 10) stamped, self-addressed envelope to: Graedons' People's Pharmacy, No. S-7, P.O. Box 52027, Durham, N.C. 27717-2027.
Q: I am taking doxycycline (Vibramycin) for a persistent infection. I get sunburned every time I go outside. I can't sit in the house every day or I'll go crazy. What should I do?
A: Protective clothing and a hat, and a high SPF (15 or greater) sunscreen should help. Be sure to wear sunglasses with at least 99 percent UV protection, as this drug can also make your eyes more sensitive to sun damage.
Q: I was interested to read your column about gin-soaked raisins for arthritis relief. I heard about this home remedy two years ago from a friend who knew I had problems with painful osteoarthritis. I had tried all kinds of medicine, from aspirin to Voltaren, without much result.
I started the remedy and after about a month I really noticed a difference. It's not a cure for arthritis, but it is a lot cheaper than the high-priced medicine that hurt my stomach, and I believe it has helped me.
A: Thanks for the testimonial. We don't know how the raisin remedy got started, but reader Jim Campbell in Hendersonville, N.C., sent us the recipe from the newsletter of St. Lucas Lutheran Church in Toledo, Ohio: "Empty one box of golden light raisins into a large shallow container. Completely cover the raisins with gin. Let stand, uncovered, until the gin evaporates and the raisins are dry. Store in a closed container and eat nine raisins daily."
The piece Jim sent suggested that juniper berries, used to flavor gin, have medicinal properties. Juniper was used in folk medicine for a variety of ills, including arthritis.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Dr. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert.