Last reviewed by Faculty of Harvard Medical School on January 24, 2013
By Harvey B. Simon, M.D.
Harvard Medical School
Summertime and the living is easy if you stay healthy, that is. Most guys think of winter as the "sick season," but summer's seasonal woes can creep up on you when you least expect them. Here are a few tips for staying cool, dealing with the sun's awesome radiant energy, managing poison ivy and warding off the insects that like summer as much as you do.
Back to top
Heat and Humidity
Heat can turn a July day into a medical crisis. Your metabolism always generates heat. When you exercise your muscles crank out 20 times more heat. That's OK as long as your body gets rid of the excess heat. Your body cools itself by releasing the heat into cool air and through the evaporation of sweat. But as temperatures and humidity rise, you can't shed the heat and it remains trapped in your body. That's when problems develop. Some are mild (muscle cramps), others serious (heat exhaustion) and some can be lethal (heat stroke).
A few simple precautions can keep you from overheating.
- Avoid sunlight. Schedule your outdoor activity in the early morning or the evening to avoid direct sunlight and to take advantage of the cooler temperatures.
- Wear light-colored, loose garments.Don't cover up too much.
- Take it easy. Walk instead of jogging or use a cart instead of walking the golf course. Take breaks and quit early.
- Don't exercise in extreme heat and humidity. If it's humid and above 80° to 85°, take a day off. Or head for the pool or an air-conditioned health club.
- Drink plenty of water. Drink 6 to 8 ounces of cool water before an activity, and pause frequently to drink. Even if you don't feel thirsty, drink again on your way to the shower.
- Stay cool at home. Use an air conditioner or fans. If you can't cool down your house, go somewhere else when it's really hot.
- Listen to your body. Fatigue, weakness, confusion, lightheadedness, nausea, labored breathing, chest discomfort, or a rapid or erratic pulse can all be signs of trouble. If you feel ill, get into a cool place and drink plenty of water. If you don't improve promptly, get help.
Back to top
Sun exposure builds up over time to increase your risk of melanomas and other skin cancers. It also leads to premature aging and wrinkling of your skin.
Use a sunscreen that will protect you from both UVA and UVB ultraviolet energy. Most products are effective against UVB, but many fail against UVA. Look for a broad spectrum sunscreen. Ingredients like avobenzone and ecamsule are good for UVA, while oxybenzone and octocrylene add UVB protection. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide protect against both.
Use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. Apply it liberally 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure. Reapply every two hours, or after you swim or dry yourself with a towel. Even sweating can wash away protection.
Above all, don't let a sunscreen give you a false sense of security. The only foolproof protection is to avoid sunlight as much as possible. Stay in the shade when you can, especially between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest. Try to stay away from reflective surfaces. Wear a hat with a big brim, pants and long sleeves.
Cold compresses soothe sunburned skin. Aspirin and similar pain relievers can reduce discomfort and inflammation. If your sunburn is severe, you'll need extra fluids and rest. A steroid lotion or spray may also help.
Back to top
Sunny Skies and Your Eyes
The ultraviolet rays in sunlight can damage your eyes every bit as much as your skin. The cornea is at particular risk. Even a single intense exposure can cause photokeratatis, or sun blindness. The symptoms are pain and light sensitivity, often accompanied by redness, tearing and uncontrollable blinking. Fortunately, the cornea will usually repair itself in 12 to 48 hours. But repeated low-level ultraviolet exposure can cause cumulative damage to the lens, ultimately resulting in cataracts.
Sunglasses will prevent both problems if they have high-quality lenses that screen out UV rays. Avoid lenses that are rated as "cosmetic." Instead look for sunglasses rated "general purpose." They absorb at least 90% of ultraviolet B rays and 60% of UVA. For intense exposures, turn to glasses with a "special purpose" rating; they absorb 99% of UVB.
Back to top
Poison ivy, oak and sumac can all cause contact dermatitis. It develops when the skin comes in contact with a chemical that triggers an allergic reaction.
The skin is red, swollen and itchy. In severe cases, small blisters appear and clear fluid may seep from the skin.
Don't scratch or rub the inflamed skin. Compresses of cool, clean water can be soothing. Aspirin or acetaminophen will help relieve pain.
Mild steroid ointments will speed healing. They are available over-the-counter. Stronger medications need a prescription. If you have a severe case, your doctor may prescribe steroid pills.
Finally, remember that the best treatment is prevention. Learn to recognize and avoid pesky plants.
Back to top
Insect Bites and Stings
Summertime and the stinging is easy. Most bites are little more than a nuisance. They cause a brief ouch and a mild itch. Even the mildest bite, though, can have major consequences if the insect happens to be a mosquito carrying West Nile virus or a tick carrying the critter that causes Lyme disease. Other bites can cause considerable pain and swelling. A few can trigger life-threatening allergic reactions in sensitive people.
Although most bites are mild and harmless, try to avoid them all. Clean out spider webs, hives and insect nests. When you're in an area with lots of ticks, wear shoes, long sleeves and pants; button your shirt cuffs and tuck your pant legs into your socks. Light-colored garments will give you the best shot at spotting ticks. Avoid bright colors, floral patterns and sweet scents that attract bees. Stay behind screens between dusk and dawn, when mosquitoes rule.
Use insect repellants. Products containing DEET are best for mosquitoes, ticks, flies and fleas. Preparations with 10% to 30% DEET are safe and effective for adults. Protection lasts for several hours, but lessens with swimming and heavy perspiration. Newer products that contain picairdin appear as effective as DEET. Oil of lemon eucalyptus (also known as PMD) can help, too. For extra protection against ticks, you can spray permethrin on your clothing; a single application will last for up to a week.
Back to top
Harvey B. Simon, M.D. is an Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a member of the Health Sciences Technology Faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is the founding editor of the Harvard Men's Health Watch newsletter and author of six consumer health books, including The Harvard Medical School Guide to Men's Health (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The No Sweat Exercise Plan, Lose Weight, Get Healthy and Live Longer (McGraw-Hill, 2006). Dr. Simon practices at the Massachusetts General Hospital; he received the London Prize for Excellence in Teaching from Harvard and MIT.