June 1, 2005
Filed under Feature Stories
Sunlight brings life. Without it, plants wouldn’t grow, the beach would be less fun, and our mental health would decline. Exposure to sunlight also helps our bodies produce Vitamin D, which strengthens us against osteoporosis, numerous cancers, rickets and other diseases.
Like so many other good things, though, too much sun can be bad. Some consequences of too much sun include allergic reactions, a depressed immune system, premature aging, and eye damage. Skin cancer can also result from overexposure.
TOO MUCH FUN. The sun’s powerful rays can produce long-term, even deadly, ailments if you get too much. The culprits are two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVB rays are short-wavelength, powerful rays that attack the outer layers of the skin. They cause sunburns and stimulate the growth of melanin, the pigments that make you look tan. UVB rays can also damage DNA in the skin, which may lead to skin cancer.
UVA rays have a longer wavelength and penetrate deeper into the skin. They can damage connective tissue and result in premature aging. UVA may also play a role in the development of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. Each year, more than one million cases are diagnosed, more than 50,000 of which are melanoma cancers — the most dangerous kind. This year, about 10,000 people will die from skin cancer.
Although skin cancer commonly appears in older people, its inception often begins at an early age, when children’s skin is more vulnerable to sun damage. For example, 80 percent of sun damage occurs before the age of 18, and one bad sunburn as a child can double the chances of getting skin cancer later in life.
Your eyes are also vulnerable to sun damage. Short-term exposure to intense sun (especially on the water, sand or snow) can lead to sunburned retinas, also called “snow blindness.” Long-term exposure can lead to cataracts and macular degeneration (the malfunction of the eyes’ light-receptor cells).
Exposure to solar radiation varies greatly, depending on where you are:
UV radiation is more intense at the equator, where the sun’s rays have a shorter path through the protective atmosphere before they hit you.
UV intensity is also greater nearer the Earth’s poles, where depletion of our atmosphere’s ozone layer (our primary shield against harmful solar radiation) allows more radiation through.
UV radiation is greater at altitude. UV exposure increases by about 7 percent with every 1000-foot gain in elevation. At 6000 feet, there’s about 40 percent more UV radiation than at sea level. At 10,000 feet, you’re being hammered by up to 70 percent stronger UV rays.
UV rays can also come from below. Sand and snow can reflect up to 80 percent of UV rays. Water can reflect up to 100 percent.
PREVENTION. Luckily, sunburns, skin cancer and eye damage are easily preventable.
Avoid being in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Enjoy shade as often as possible.
When in the sun, wear sun-protective clothing: a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, long pants and long sleeves.
Generously apply sunscreen (rated for both UVA and UVB at SPF 15 or higher). Make sure to apply sunscreen under your chin and other places prone to rays bouncing up from snow, sand or water below. Use sunscreen within one year of purchase; its chemical protection breaks down over time.
Do not apply sunscreen to infants. Keep them in the shade instead.
Wear sunglasses rated to block at least 99 percent of UVA and UVB rays. Wearing cheap sunglasses without UV protection can cause more damage than wearing no glasses at all, because they cause your pupils to dilate in order to let in more light, which also lets in more harmful UV rays.
Do not indulge in vanity and visit a tanning salon. They use the same dangerous UV rays that you should avoid outside.
If moles or other growths on the skin appear, or change over time, have a doctor take a look. Skin cancer is best treated if diagnosed early.
We all get sunburn at one time or another. Milder (first-degree) burns produce pain and redness. More severe (second-degree) burns cause swelling, intense pain and blisters. Here’s what to do:
Apply cool water or wet compresses to stop the burn and ease pain and swelling.
Apply aloe vera gel to speed healing.
Puncture and drain all blisters that are more than 1 inch across with a sterile needle, then apply an antibacterial ointment (such as Polysporin) and cover them with a loose, non-sticking bandage.
Use non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory pain relievers, such as ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil, etc.); 800 mg., three times per day for three days to relive pain and speed healing.
Steroidal ointments, such as a 0.25-percent hydrocortisone cream, can relieve pain and swelling if applied early. However, they can also slow healing and increase susceptibility to infection. a If the sunburn is widespread or severe, seek medical attention.
EYE BURN. Victims with snow blindness will feel as though they have sand in their eyes. The eyes will be sensitive to light and appear red, watery and swollen. Vision can be blurred. Blinking is painful, and it may be difficult for the victim to open his eyelids at all. Unfortunately, these signs and symptoms often don’t show up for several hours after the damage has occurred. Here’s what to do:
Inspect eyes to make sure there are no abrasive materials (sand, dirt, etc.) present (fold each eyelid over a Q-tip to see under lids).
Have victim close and rest eyes.
Apply cool, moist compresses over eyelids to relieve pain and reduce swelling.
Apply antibiotic eye drops, such as tobramycin (Tobrex); two to three drops every two to three hours while awake for two to three days.
Snow blindness should heal in a few days. Seek medical attention if severe, or if signs of infection appear (green or yellow discharge from eyes, redness, swelling and/or fever).
BEAT THE HEAT.The sun isn’t the only thing to watch out for this summer. Heat or overexertion can cause hyperthermia (overheating your body temperature), which can lead to heat exhaustion or heat syncope (aka fainting), and heat stroke (dangerously severe). Painful muscle cramps are also common after long physical exertion on hot days.
Heat exhaustion occurs when the body’s temperature rises above about 102 degrees F and presents dizziness, disorientation, nausea, weakness, vomiting and restlessness. Untreated, heat exhaustion can intensify into full-blown heat stroke.
Heat syncope occurs when the body dilates blood vessels at the skin to help radiate unwanted heat away from the core organs. This deprives the brain of blood and may cause fainting. Body temperatures do not need to be elevated for this to occur.
Heat stroke is the most severe form of heat illness and occurs when the body’s temperature rises above 104 degrees F. Above this temperature, the brain loses ability to regulate the body. Onset can appear rapidly and is often characterized by mental confusion, in-coordination, unconsciousness and convulsions. Left untreated, about 80 percent of victims die. Permanent disabilities among survivors are common.
Muscle cramps (also called heat cramps) are common on hot days after hours of physical activity. They usually occur in muscles that are working hardest, such as your thighs and calves when hiking uphill, and are caused by insufficient replacement of salts and other electrolytes. Muscles and nerves require potassium, calcium and other chemicals to function correctly. Hours of hiking and perspiration deplete these salts. Hydrating without replacing electrolytes can throw off the body’s electrolyte balance.
PREVENTION. On hot days, there are several ways to keep your body cool, and keep heat illnesses at bay:
Avoid physical exertion on hot days.
Keep your body cool. Wet clothes and find a fan or breeze to encourage cooling through both evaporation and convection.
Drink lots of water — at least a gallon a day on hot days and substantially more if you’re active. Numerous studies show that well-hydrated people are much less prone to heat illness.
Replace electrolytes during physical activity. This can be done by taking salt tablets with water while hydrating, drinking Gatorade or other electrolyte-replacement drinks; or simply eating foods high in potassium, sodium and other nutrients, such as dried bananas or apricots, jerky, or a salami sandwich. A combination of generous hydration and eating quality fuels will provide the calories and energy your body needs during exercise.
TREATMENT HEAT EXHAUSTION:
Stop all activity and move to a cool, shady spot.
Remove restrictive clothing and drink lots of fluids with small amounts of salt.
Place cold packs on the front sides of the neck and between the legs, where arteries are close to the skin. Do not place ice directly on your skin for prolonged periods. Wet the clothes or skin with cool (not cold) water, then fan to aid evaporative and convective cooling.
HEAT SYNCOPY: Keep the victim lying down, provide shade and raise legs until recovery. Provide plenty of fluids and help cool the victim by the methods above.
Heat stroke: This is a serious medical emergency. The treatment is similar for heat exhaustion above, but much more urgent. Drop everything and make every effort to cool the victim quickly.
Do not give fluids to someone who is not fully conscious.
Do not immerse the victim in icy water. Cool water or cold packs are sufficient.
Transport the victim to medical attention as quickly as possible, cooling along the way.
Check his temperature every 30 minutes and continue cooling until temperature drops to at least 101 degrees F.
Muscle cramps: Find rest in a cool place, drink fluids with salts or eat electrolyte-rich foods, then massage muscles until cramps subside.