Dehydration, sunburn, heatstroke, insect bites, rashes, and lacerations – summer can spell health meltdown with a seemingly endless list of unsightly, uncomfortable, and potentially lethal hazards. The good news is that the vast majority of them are preventable if you take the necessary precautions. Experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) can get you started on a summer of happy memories instead of hapless injuries.
I estimate more than 90% of heat-related health complaints can be avoided if you're aware of the dangers and follow the necessary advice. It's often about using common sense, which can slip our minds when we're feeling hot and bothered."
Deepa Iyengar, MD, MPH, professor of family and community medicine at McGovern Medical School at UTHealth
To stay vigilant about health and safety, Iyengar recommends having one thing at hand.
"It's easy to be forgetful in the heat, so I tell all my patients to create a summer survival bag and take it everywhere. Fill it with all the essentials like sunscreen, insect repellent, and water containing electrolytes. Add to it as you go, so you have everything at your fingertips in one place," said Iyengar, medical director of family medicine at UT Physicians, the clinical practice of McGovern Medical School.
To reduce your chances of seeing the inside of doctor's office instead of the great outdoors, follow these tips:
1. Stay hydrated
If you're soaked in sweat, it's definitely time to pour yourself a strictly non-alcoholic drink. Dehydration can happen fast in high temperatures – thirst, dry mouth, dark yellow urine, dry and cool skin, headache, and muscle cramps are all common symptoms. Drinking enough fluids is one of the most important things you can do to prevent heat illness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
"Dehydration is the No. 1 issue, especially among older people who are often out doing yardwork and, because body water content decreases with age, are at an increased risk of having problems," Iyengar said. "Seniors may also have heart conditions, which restrict fluid intake, so they should be sure to talk to their physicians about how to regulate this."
Water will normally maintain hydration during work in the heat, providing you eat regular meals to replace salt lost in sweat. If you're sweating for several hours, sports drinks with balanced electrolytes can help. Steer clear of alcohol as it increases water loss and reduces the ability to notice signs of dehydration.
2. Protect your skin
There's no such thing as a healthy tan, so be sure to guard against the sun's harmful rays. Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 30. Don't forget to reapply every two hours, or after 80 minutes if you are sweating or swimming.
"Even if you're in a shady area with lots of trees, you can still burn because the sun is so strong and ozone levels may be low," Iyengar warned.
Clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) is another good option – UPF 50 is best, and remember that only the areas covered are protected, so you'll still need sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology has more sunscreen advice.
3. Be swim-savvy
If you are out on the water, make sure everyone in your party has a U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jacket. If swimming at a pool, keep a close eye on children and never let them swim alone. Remember that water wings or noodles are no substitute.
"Pool injuries are common. Parents should make sure their children wear slip-resistant shoes and screen the pool area for danger spots," Iyengar said. "Tell them where it's safe to dive, so they don't hit their heads."
Sticking to well-maintained pools and well-monitored beaches will also help lower your risk of coming down with waterborne illnesses.
At the beach, be aware of hazards and weather conditions, check for rip tide information in the area, and stay in designated areas with lifeguards. The American Red Cross has more safety tips.
4. Speaking of pools
Pools can be dangerous even when you're not swimming. According to the CDC, unintentional drowning claims the lives of around 10 people every day in the U.S. with children ages 1 to 4 most vulnerable. Among that age group, most drownings occur in home swimming pools. That's why teaching children to swim, providing close supervision, and creating barriers including fencing between the pool area and house, are vital. Remove floats, balls, and other toys from the pool so children aren't tempted to enter the pool area unsupervised.
5. Hot cars kill
Hot cars can be death traps for children. According to the National Safety Council, a record 52 children died last year from heat-related deaths after being trapped inside vehicles. Even with windows left slightly open, the temperature inside a car can increase by 20 degrees in just 10 minutes. Preventive measures include teaching children that the car is not a safe place to play, keeping car keys out of their reach, putting something you need in the back seat when transporting a child, and utilizing apps or new technology that use sensors to alert parents or caregivers that a child is still in the car.
6. Workers should acclimatize
Before working in hot conditions, it's important to help the body adjust, a process called acclimatization. Typically, acclimatization should be done over a seven- to 14-day period, according to the CDC's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. The U.S. Department of Labor recommends that workloads should be increased incrementally with workers taking more breaks as they acclimatize. Outdoor workers should also regularly seek shade, drink plenty of water, and know the signs of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
"Workers like lawn service crews, construction workers, lifeguards, and camp leaders are at high risk and need to be particularly careful," Iyengar said.
7. Get your grill on message
Keep meat, poultry, and seafood refrigerated until ready to grill. When transporting, keep below 40 degrees in an insulated cooler. Your grill, utensils, and hands all need to be squeaky clean before you begin. Use a food thermometer to ensure meat is cooked hot enough to kill harmful germs. Avoid cross-contamination by using clean utensils and a clean plate to remove cooked meat from the grill. Remember to put leftovers in the fridge or freezer within two hours of cooking or one hour if it's hotter than 90 degrees outside. The CDC has further guidance.
8. Once bitten, twice wise
Most insect bites are harmless, but some can spread dangerous diseases like Zika virus, dengue, Lyme disease, and malaria. It's important to take precautions, especially if you are visiting areas with known insect-borne diseases. To protect against mosquitoes, ticks, and other bugs, use insect repellent that contains 20 to 30% DEET on exposed skin and clothing. Don't forget to apply your sunscreen first. Cover exposed skin as much as possible by wearing long-sleeved shirts, pants, socks, and closed shoes instead of sandals. If camping, use bed nets, preferably pretreated with pyrethroid insecticide, to protect against mosquitoes. Pay attention to outbreaks by checking CDC Travel Health Notices and following recommendations.
9. Camp and party safely
Whether you're spending a night under the stars, planning a get-together on the beach, or going to a pool party, there are pitfalls that could get in your way of having a good time.
"Making sure you have the right strength of insect repellent for the situation is only half the battle. I see all sorts of injuries, including lacerations from cutting mishaps, wood splinters in the eye, and burns from campfires," Iyengar said. "Even when in high spirits, you have to be on your guard. Keep long hair tied back and don't wear perfumes and scented creams, which are flammable."
Alcohol consumption only exacerbates the risks, as it impairs both physical and mental abilities, as well as decreasing inhibitions. In fact, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, research shows that up to 70% of all water recreation deaths of teens and adults involve the use of alcohol.
Even when you're not partying, alcohol and heat are a lethal cocktail, as the fluid lost from sweating in addition to increased urination can quickly lead to dehydration or heatstroke. That's another reason to rethink your drink and stick to nonalcoholic options.
10. Chill out
When temperatures go sky-high, are you more prone to hitting the roof? You're not alone. According to the Association for Psychological Science, researchers have observed a correlation between hot weather and hotter tempers.
So it makes sense to try and keep your cool in more ways than one. The CDC advises staying in air-conditioned buildings as much as possible; drinking plenty of fluids even if you don't feel thirsty; wearing loose, lightweight, light-colored clothing; and taking cool showers or baths to cool down. Using the stove or oven to cook will make you and your home hotter, so firing up the grill outside and chilling out with friends and family could be the perfect solution.