Summer Skin Safety: Burns, Bites and Poison Plants

Most of us don’t realize that our skin is our body’s largest organ.  It covers every square millimeter of our bodies, and acts as a container for everything beneath it.  It performs its job effortlessly in most cases, not really asking for much.

Except when it calls for attention. Sometimes, at any time of the year, it can become irritated.  In the winter, it typically becomes dry.  In drier climates, it can remain dry all year round.   The summer season, however, presents its own unique set of challenges.

It is always advised to seek medical attention if you have concerns regarding skin conditions.

Our skin is more exposed to the sun, the elements, insects, bees and poisonous plants during the summertime.  Therefore, it is more at risk for burns, bug bites and reactions to plants—typically poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.

Sun protection has been a health issue that, luckily, has been heavily covered in the media.  Most of us know that we need to wear sunscreen when we are outdoors, and we need to watch our skin for new moles, suspicious spots, sores that don’t heal, and changes in existing moles.  It is highly advised to perform regular checks of our skin all over our bodies to watch for these changes, and to have someone we are comfortable with check our back and other hard-to-see places.  An annual visit to a board-certified dermatologist is ideal, as they are highly trained and experienced in the detection and treatment of skin disorders.

It has been determined that most damage to the skin by the sun takes place in our earlier years, and cannot be reversed.  As we age, we are less vulnerable to the most detrimental effects of the sun, but the exposure we have accumulated over our lifetimes remains a risk factor.  The greater the exposure, and the greater the damage in our earlier years, the greater the risk for skin problems as we age.

Fair-skinned people, and those with many moles are at the highest risk.  Those with darker skin are more protected by melanin, the pigment that causes our skin to darken.  Some people are naturally dark-skinned, no matter what their race, and others are very light skinned, with less melanin, and consequently, a higher risk for skin damage.

In addition to this risk, people who take certain medications—ibuprofen/naproxen (NSAIDS), tetracyclines, furosemide, quinolones, psoralens, thiazides and the phenothiazines—are at greater risk for sunburn, as these drugs increase the skin’s sensitivity to the sun.  Check with your doctor if you are taking any of these medications before you spend a considerable amount of time in the sun.

By the time you feel the effects of the sun, it is too late.  The burn is there, and for relief, the following remedies may help:

*Apply a cold compress to the affected areas.

*Apply a cooling gel such as aloe vera to the affected area

*Take aspirin or Tylenol to relieve discomfort and inflammation

*Avoid further exposure until the burn resolves.

You can expect peeling after the burning subsides.  A sunburn is obviously damage to the skin, but remember that even a suntan is considered skin damage.  Long-term exposure to the sun can create a leather-like and prematurely aged  appearance to the skin.

Prevention is the best approach to sunburn.  Keeping these suggestions in mind will likely reduce or eliminate your chances of sunburn:

*Avoid the sun during peak hours:  10:00 a.m. until 2:00 p.m.

*Use a sunscreen of SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30 every day, even on cloudy days.  When swimming or engaging in other water sports, re-apply every 80 minutes, even if the label states it is water-resistant.  Apply at least 20 minutes before sun exposure.

*Avoid tanning beds, and minimize sunbathing.

*Wear a wide brimmed hat and sunglasses.

*Wear dark colors if the temperature permits.  Tighter weaves will keep rays out best.  Some nylon shirts offer sun protection—check the label and tags.

*For children under six months of age, keeping them out of the sun is the best plan.

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Sunlight is necessary to promote plant and human growth.  Humans, however, should expose themselves sensibly.

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Summer brings the added risk of tick bites.  In the Midwest, they are most common in the early spring to late summer.  Ticks bite and attach themselves to a host—a human or animal—to feed on blood.  Most ticks don’t carry diseases, and most bites do not cause serious consequences.  However, it is important to be aware of the risks:

*Lyme disease

*Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever

*Tularemia

*Colorado Tick fever

*Babesiosis

*Ehrlichiosis

If you have any of the following symptoms after a tick bite—anywhere from day one to three weeks after the bite—see your health care provider:

*fever

*headache

*nausea

*vomiting

*muscle aches

*rash or sore around bite

Typically, removing the tick and washing the area is all the treatment necessary.  Being certain to remove the head, as well as the body, is important to prevent an infection.  To remove the tick, medical professionals recommend:

***Use a clean tweezers.  If you don’t have one, wear rubber gloves or use tissue paper around your fingers.  Grasp the tick around the head, not the body.  Squeezing the body could force fluids into your body from its body.  Gently pull the tick straight out, do not twist it.  Place the tick in a plastic sealable bag or jar and place it in the freezer in case it needs to be examined in the future.  If you cannot remove it, contact your doctor.

Ticks are likely the most feared insect in the summer, but mosquitoes are likely the most annoying.  While mosquitoes also can carry disease, their bites can cause irritation and itching.  Using a spray to repel mosquitoes is the best defense.  Avoiding standing water, and wearing clothing to cover the skin while keeping comfortable is advised as well.

There has been widespread global concern over the Zika virus carried by mosquitoes,, which affects primarily South America.  At this time, there is not an immediate threat to the United States.   Trusted media sources will likely keep our nation apprised of any imminent danger; panic is never a good reaction.

Bee stings area also a concern for the warmer months.  Preventive measures include:

*Learn to recognize bees and other insects and avoid them.  Nests or mounds of bees should obviously be avoided.

*Bright-colored clothing and perfumes can attract bees.  Avoid them in favor of long-sleeved shirts and long pants, as well as shoes and socks if you think you may be in an area that has bees.

*Spray outdoor garbage cans regularly with insecticide.

*Make sure you have screen on open windows.

Most people can suffer through a bee sting with minimal symptoms, including:

local pain, swelling and redness.  Simply washing the area and applying antiseptic like hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion and covering it with a dry, sterile bandage is typically treatment enough.  If the stinger is still in the skin, remove it gently.  Scrape gently if necessary, but don’t squeeze the sac or stinger.  If you are stung on the hand and are wearing rings on any of your fingers, remove them immediately in case extreme swelling occurs.

However, some people are more sensitive and allergic to bee stings.  Symptoms of an allergic reaction include, in addition to pain, swelling and redness:

*pimple-like spots

*moderate-severe swelling, versus mild swelling with a normal reaction.

*warmth of the skin in that area

More severe symptoms include:

*trouble breathing

*swelling of the face, mouth or throat

*wheezing and/or trouble swallowing

*restlessness and anxiety

*rapid heartbeat

*dizziness and/or sharp drop in blood pressure

*hives that first appear around sting as a red itchy rash, then spread.

If you know you are allergic, always be prepared with your epinephrine kit.   If you know you are going into an area that likely has bees, do not go alone.  Getting immediate medical attention is always advised after a sting if you are allergic.

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In North America, the three most common poisonous plants are poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac.    An online search will easily provide images of these three plants so that you can be aware of what they look like, and avoid them.  The classic “leave of three, leave them be” is good advice to heed for poison ivy.  If there are three leave on the plant in question, it is best to leave them alone.  In the Midwest, poison ivy sometimes grows as a vine, as well as a plant.

If you have been exposed, follow these steps:

*remove your clothes

*wash all exposed areas with cool running water, using soap if available.  Clean under fingernails as well.  If you are in the woods, use water from a running stream.

*If pets are exposed, bathe them as well.  They can carry the toxic element back to your home on their fur.

The most common reactions to exposure to these poison plants are:

*redness and itching of the skin

*a rash in the area of contact, often in patterns of streaks projecting from the affected area.

*the rash goes on to develop into red bumps, or large oozing blisters.

It is always advisable to seek medical attention if you have been exposed to any of these three plants, but especially if you experience any of the following:

*difficulty breathing

*severe swelling

*more than ¼ of your body is covered with the rash

*the rash is on the lips, face, eyes or genitals

*a fever develops, and signs of infections such as pus or yellow oozing fluid, and an odor comes from the blisters.

*you have been exposed to the smoke from these plants burning

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It is always advised to consult your health care provider if you have any concerns regarding any sunburns, bug bites or exposure to poison plants, or any other skin conditions.

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Author’s note:  As I complete this post, I am treating a burn that I received in a way that was not mentioned, but is more common during the warmer months:  I took a short ride on the back of a motorcycle while I was wearing shorts.  I wasn’t careful to keep my legs clear of the already-hot muffler, and I sustained a moderate burn on the inside of my calf as I hopped on the motorcycle as a passenger.  The foot pedal wasn’t down, and it took half a second, and the damage was done.  Please be aware that if you do choose to ride, long pants are always the best option.

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Be good to your skin.  It is the largest organ your body has.