Keep Your Cool To Stay Healthy

Best Of The Beach A Weekly Series About Good Living By The Shore

Take Steps To Avoid Heat-related Illness As You Indulge In Some Fun In The Sun

July 05, 2009|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,kelly.brewington@baltsun.com

The water's lapping at your freshly manicured toes. The sun's shining down on your back and your Blackberry is most definitely turned off. It's a glorious beach moment.

But sun seekers beware: A dazzling day at the shore can be the perfect summer escape, but don't let the relaxation put you off your guard. When it comes to sun, there can be too much of a good thing. Heat exhaustion and sunburn are not just minor annoyances; they can be harmful.

Heat-related illness, ranging from cramps to life-threatening heatstroke, happens when the body struggles to cool itself. Heat cramps are muscle spasms, usually in the legs, arms and abdomen. With heat exhaustion, a loss of water and essential salts takes its toll on the body, resulting in dizziness, weakness, mild headache and vomiting. Heatstroke is the most severe illness and is accompanied by a higher body temperature and confusion.

While the elderly, children and those with chronic illnesses are most at risk, young healthy people wind up in the emergency room with heatstroke just like everyone else, said Dr. Jeff Sternlicht, chairman of emergency medicine at Greater Baltimore Medical Center. "We'll see a young to middle-aged person who has a job where they tend to be outside somewhere in the heat," he said. "These are people who feel 'It's no big deal I can do it. I'm healthy, I'm young.' "

People seem to have the most trouble with heat-related illness in early summer, usually those first couple of weeks of hot weather, Sternlicht said. "After a few weeks in the heat, the body physiologically controls itself to be in the heat."

Sunburn, meanwhile, remains a threat no matter how warm, and even on cloudy days. In addition to using plenty of sunscreen, people should limit the amount of time they spend in the sun, especially during peak hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., said Dr. Susan Kesmodel, a surgical oncologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Sun exposure injures the skin and enough injury over time can cause a mutation in cells that cause cancer, she said.

"I know we're not going to make hermits out of everybody, but there are lots of people who think they if apply sunscreen they can stay out in the sun forever," she said. "But people are probably not using enough of it and are sitting out during peak sun hours."

Even those with darker complexions should use sunscreen. While people with dark skin tones are better able to absorb the light, that doesn't mean they can't get melanomas or skin cancer - they just get them less frequently than people with lighter skin, Kesmodel said.

Tips for avoiding heatstroke

* Stay hydrated. Purists insist ice water is best. But sports drinks are just as good at replenishing fluids and have the added bonus of helping restore electrolytes - such as sodium and potassium, says Sternlicht. Skip the sugary sodas. Alcohol, which causes more fluid loss, speeds up dehydration and impairs judgment, is out.

* Watch out for heat cramps. Tossing a Frisbee or a volleyball might seem low-exertion, especially for the young, but on days when the temperature soars and the air is thick with humidity, even a little exercise can slow you down.

* Take it easy. Pace yourself and take a break from the heat. Go indoors and enjoy the comfort of your air-conditioned hotel room. And when you're out, try to stay under an umbrella, especially on the most sweltering of days.

Tips for protecting the skin

* Apply enough sunscreen. Use a sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher and slather it on. Most experts recommend an ounce to cover the body - about a palmful. Apply about every two hours, or more if you're swimming or sweating. Put some on your lips too, with a lip balm that has SPF built into it.

* Seek shade. Wear a hat - one big enough to protect your neck, ears and nose. Don't forget your eyes; sun can damage more than your skin. Wear a pair of good wraparound sunglasses. Coolness factor aside, they'll block out damaging UV radiation.

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