Summer Safety Series: Sun and Heat Safety
Updated: Jan 24
It's almost June, and it's starting to heat up outside! Here's what you need to know about sun and heat safety to make sure you and your family stay safe and cool in the warm weather this year.
Sun and Heat Safety Basics
Although nearly all of us want to simply run out and enjoy the beautiful weather once summer comes along, there are quite a few risks of being outdoors in the heat and sunlight that parents need to be aware of, with the most common of these being the following:
It's common practice to put on some sunscreen and have a bottle of water or popsicle nearby when the sun is at its hottest, but here are the top concerns you should educate yourself about and actively take steps to prevent occurring.
Getting outdoors and soaking up the sun is a great way to boost your mood and your health by upping your levels of Vitamin D from exposure to the sunlight, but when you become exposed to too much UV radiation or have been in more moderate amounts of sunlight for too long without protection, you can develop a sunburn.
What is it like to get a sunburn?
A sunburn is your body's inflammatory reaction to too much UV radiation from being in the sun too long and/or not protecting your skin properly. If you get a sunburn, within a few hours, you should likely experience:
Reddening of the skin
Heat radiating from the skin
Burning or aching sensation
For those who have more severe reactions to excessive UV exposure, they may also experience:
As a person begins to heal up from getting a sunburn, they will typically notice their skin peeling off as their body attempts to shed the damaged cells. When your sunburn begins to peel and heal up, it's important that you do not peel the skin off yourself and try to allow your body to go through its healing process as uninterrupted as possible.
Who is most at risk of getting a sunburn?
Melanin is what helps a person have some protection against the sun's UV rays coming down, so your likelihood of getting burned mostly comes down to your genetics.
Individuals with darker skin have more natural protection from the sun's rays, but these individuals are still able to get a sunburn and receive UV radiation damage to their skin cells despite their advantage, and this damage can develop into skin cancer later on. Individuals with lighter skin are much more likely to get burned and need to be more cautious about their outdoor activities when the sun is at its brightest. Babies and young children are also more sensitive to the sun and will need to take extra precautions.
Aside from the amount of melanin a person has in their skin, people with certain medical conditions as well as those who take certain medications may be more at risk of UV radiation damage and sunburn compared to others.
If you or your children are taking any of the following medications, be sure to consult with your doctor or pharmacist about the risks of sun sensitivity associated with these drugs:
Certain antidepressants (including St. John's Wort)
Antihistamines (such as Bendryl)
Blood pressure medications
NSAIDs (including ibuprofen)
And many others
A lot of folks aren't aware that something as simple as taking an Aleve or some Motrin could lead to sun sensitivity when they walk outdoors, so it's best to be aware, speak to a doctor or pharmacist if needed, and take precautions to protect yourself.
For individuals that have a lot of freckles or moles or have a family history of skin cancer, you have a much higher risk of skin cancer compared to others, so be sure to take the necessary measures to reduce your exposure to UV rays when out, and always have regular checkups with a trusted physician or dermatologist to address any concerns about prevention as well as any skin changes.
How to prevent sunburn
Here are some of the actions you can take to help prevent you and your family members from getting sunburn:
Use sunscreen when outdoors (and reapply it every two hours—it doesn't last forever!)
Use sun hats (regardless of age) to help shield your face and eyes from burns and UV damage—you will still need sunscreen, though.
Wear light clothing with good coverage if you're outside to prevent your exposed skin from getting burnt.
Avoid being out in the sun when the rays are the most intense (usually mid-day).
Little ones (below the age of 6 months) should not be allowed out in the sun just yet—keep them well-shielded and covered up!
Always wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and vision. Sun damage to the eyes can happen very quickly.
Other issues to note:
Cloudy skies do not mean that there is no radiation coming through—you can still get burned!
Keep an eye on your area's UV index on days you know you'll be outdoors to determine which precautions you'll need to take.
Even a light pink "burn' is still a sunburn, and this increases your risks of skin cancer.
Tanning beds are just as damaging as the sunlight itself.
How to treat a sunburn
If you've slipped up and forgotten to protect yourself or have simply had a run of bad luck and managed to get a sunburn despite your best efforts, here are some of the treatment options you can use to alleviate the unpleasant symptoms of too much UV exposure:
Take a cool (not cold) shower or bath
Use cold compresses to help with the heat
Apply aloe vera to the burned areas
Use anti-inflammatory medications to help with swelling and discomfort
Do not pop any blisters or you may get an infection
Apply a moisturizing lotion or cream to help keep the area hydrated, but do not use petroleum-based products on a sunburn
Be sure to avoid further sun exposure until the sunburn is fully healed. If you or your child or other family member develop blisters or other complications, it's recommended that you consult with a doctor if the symptoms are severe. When treating a younger child for sunburn, be sure to contact your pediatrician regarding which products and methods are most suitable for their age range.
Excessive heat on a hot summer day can be absolutely draining, but heat exhaustion and its other associated conditions are not something to take lightly. Ranging from heat cramps to heat exhaustion to even heat strokes (which can become life-threatening), sweating in hot temperatures and not allowing your internal body temperature to cool down can be a dangerous combination.
What are the heat-related illnesses and what causes them?
Although they are all very similar, these heat-related conditions vary in their intensity, severity, and causes.
Heat cramps are muscle spasms that occur when a person is exercising or playing in extremely hot temperatures. These are mainly caused by a loss of electrolytes due to sweating and physical exertion. Symptoms may include:
Heat exhaustion occurs when a person is dealing with a significant loss of fluids and electrolytes. It's basically the milder form of heat-related dehydration that occurs before escalating to the point of someone having a heat stroke.
Symptoms of heat exhaustion may include:
Weak but rapid pulse
Cold or clammy skin
Low blood pressure
High body temperature
Heat strokes are the most severe form of heat-related illness and can be life-threatening if left untreated. This condition occurs when the body is unable to cool itself down and is no longer able to sweat and lowers its increasing internal temperature.
Symptoms of a heat stroke include:
Dry, hot skin
Inability to sweat despite the heat
Loss of consciousness
Excessively high body temperature
Altered mental status
Nausea with vomiting
Muscle weakness or cramps
When a person's body temperature rapidly increases and remains above 104°F for even short periods of time, this can cause brain damage, disability, or even death. Individuals that may be experiencing a heat stroke need immediate medical attention.
Dehydration is similar to these conditions but not always directly associated with heat. We'll discuss it in detail below.
Who is most likely to experience heat-related illness?
Anyone who is out in excessively hot temperatures without the proper protection or hydration puts themselves at risk of a heat-related illness. However, certain groups are more sensitive to experiencing worse symptoms or having such conditions sneak up on them more quickly:
Children ages 4 and below
Adults aged 65 and up
Underweight or overweight individuals
Those struggling with alcoholism
People with diabetes
Individuals with high blood pressure
Individuals that are taking certain medications
Just as some medications cause people to be sensitive to sunlight and at risk for burns, there are also medications that may cause a person to be more sensitive to heat:
ADHD medications (stimulants)
Certain allergy medications
Calcium channel blockers
If you are taking any of these medications and are concerned about how it may affect your time out in the sun and the heat, please consult with your doctor or a pharmacist for further information on what you can do to combat the effects of the medications that may put you at risk for heat-related illnesses.
Does humidity matter?
When it comes to dealing with high temperatures, humidity definitely plays a part in how much a person can tolerate.
Dry heat allows for quicker evaporation of sweat and therefore allows a person to cool off more quickly and regulate their body temperature more easily. This is typically the case in desert climates and other hot zones that don't receive much rainfall or moisture throughout the year.
Unfortunately, humidity causes more heat to remain trapped in people's bodies due to the fact that it impairs the proper evaporation of sweat that would typically help a person cool down. Sweating simply "doesn't work" when the humidity levels are high outside.
For those of us that live on the Gulf Coast, this is a serious concern that can easily overwhelm even a grown adult just by walking outside when the temperatures and humidity are both excessively high, let alone the effects it can have on a child.
How to treat heat-related conditions
If you manage to develop one of the heat-related conditions above, here is how you can manage them.
For heat cramps:
Avoid further physical activity.
Hydrate with cold beverages, ideally ones that contain electrolytes.
Move to a location to allow your body to cool down.
Use massage, stretching, or other similar techniques to relax your muscles.
Contact your physician if the cramps do not improve.
For heat exhaustion:
Move to a cooler location (such as a shady spot or inside of an air-conditioned building).
Loosen up or remove any clothing that may be hot or restrictive.
Soak in cool water or wet yourself by other means to cool down (hosing yourself down with cool water, getting in a cool bath or shower, submerging yourself in a cool pool or pond).
Drink fluids that are cold and preferably contain electrolytes to improve hydration and lower your body temperature. (Avoid caffeine and alcohol, which will make matters worse.)
Use ice packs on bodily areas that impact temperature the most (back, neck, groin, and underarms).
Contact your doctor if the symptoms do not improve.
If you or a family member are having a heat stroke:
Call 911 immediately before providing first aid care.
Try to cool their body temperature down to at least 101°-102° (if you have a thermometer and can check).
Fan them while wetting them with a damp cloth, sponge, or other items.
Apply ice packs to areas like the neck, underarms, groin, and back.
Wet their clothing with cold water.
How can you prevent heat-related illness?
One of the best tactics for handling heat-related illnesses is to first be proactive.
Be aware of what you're dealing with by checking your local weather forecasts, being sure to note the heat index expected for when you know you'll be outside as well as the projected humidity levels (if applicable to your area).
Make sure that you are hydrating before, during, and after any outdoor activities, especially when it's hot and you know you'll be moving around and physically active.
Try to wear loose and light-colored clothing, but try to keep some options on hand that provide good coverage and protection from the sun without causing you to overheat.
Use a spray bottle of cool water to regularly mist yourself to keep cooled down and comfortable before the overheating ever has a chance to escalate.
Avoid vigorous exercise in overly hot conditions.
Avoid alcohol and caffeine before going outdoors in hot weather or before taking part in any strenuous outdoor activities.
To prevent heat-related death or injury, never leave children or pets in hot vehicles for any amount of time for any reason.
For those looking for more information about the differences between heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and dehydration, please refer to this breakdown of the similarities and differences of each.
For additional information regarding heat intolerance in general, especially in relation to certain chronic medical conditions, please refer to this article on Medical News Today.
If you'd like to read up on a very in-depth overview of heat-related conditions and all associated risk factors (not just those listed above), WebMD's article on the issue covers everything you could possibly want or need to know.
For those seeking additional information regarding the health and well-being of elderly adults in relation to heat-related illness, please refer to the NIH website for more on the specific conditions and care procedures that apply to this age group.
Stay tuned for additional entries in our "Summer Safety Series" to learn more about how to keep your kids safe while still enjoying the summer break and beautiful weather!
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