Experts explain strategies for preventing 6 common maladies from ruining your summer fun.
By Heather Hatfield
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD
It’s summer, which means the mercury is on the rise, the beach is where it’s at, and a cold glass of lemonade is exactly what the doctor ordered.
WebMD looks at how to survive the summer season — from heat waves to poison ivy to bad burgers.
Dehydration and Heatstroke
“Dehydration and heatstroke go hand in hand,” says Peter Galier, MD, associate professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. “It happens most commonly in people who are out in the sun.”
What happens, explains Galier, is that people sweat and replace their lost electrolyte-packed body fluids with only water. Dehydration can soon follow, and heatstroke can set in if a person becomes so dehydrated they can’t sweat enough to cool down, and their body temperature rises.
How to avoid it. “If you are outside and sweating, you should be drinking at least a 50-50 mix of Gatorade and water, which has potassium and sodium,” Galier tells WebMD. “You need to be drinking at least one small liter bottle of this mix every hour if you’re working or exercising in the sun.”
Warning signs. “Symptoms of dehydration can run the gamut from thirst and general fatigue, to headaches, nausea, and confusion,” says Galier. “Heatstroke symptoms are also headache and confusion, but include delirium and even hallucinations.”
What to do. While mild dehydration can be treated by rehydrating with fluids, heatstroke is more serious. “If you have heatstroke, you need to go to the emergency room so you can have intravenous fluids,” says Galier. “With really bad heatstroke, your kidneys can shut down.”
The old adage still rings true, explains Galier. “Leaves of three — let them be,” he says. So when the summer months begin, plan ahead when you know you’re going to be trekking through the woods.
How to avoid it. “Poison ivy is a tri-leafed plant, usually with a little yellow and purple, and it tends to be anywhere with shrubbery, hiding out with other vegetation,” says Galier. “So stay out of shrub areas or wear high boots or high socks, stay on the path, and don’t touch anything you don’t recognize.”
Warning signs. Poison ivy can creep up on you, even if you wear head-to-toe clothing. “It’s the oil of the leaf that’s the problem,” says Galier. “If you take your clothes off and you touch your clothes, you’re going to get it.” The “it” he’s referring to is the itching and swelling.
What to do. It’s time to get out the topical anti-itching cream again, like calamine lotion. “If you can suffer through it and it doesn’t get worse, you can ride it out,” says Galier. If it gets worse, you’ll need to see a doctor for topical steroids or oral steroids.”
“Food-borne illnesses are more common in summer for a number of reasons,” says Linda Harris, PhD, professor in the food science and technology department at University of California Davis. “If the temperature is higher, there is more opportunity for temperature abuse of foods — that is leaving them in the danger zone, which is anything above 40 and below 140 degrees. In this range, microorganisms that cause food-borne disease can multiply.”
From the pasta salad left out all afternoon on the Fourth of July, to a turkey and mayo sandwich in your backpack on a 3-mile hike up a mountain on a warm day, to simply driving from the grocery store to your home in the sweltering heat, summertime foods are a breeding ground for trouble — and bacteria.
How to avoid it. “There are four basic rules for preventing food-borne illness: cook, clean, chill, and separate — and these become important during summer,” says Harris, who is a scientific communicator with the Institute of Food Technologists.
First, she recommends, use a thermometer when cooking so you know your food is adequately heated.
Second, “when you are outside, it’s always best to wash with soap and water. But if you can’t, bring sanitizing handy wipes so you can clean your hands after you handle food,” Harris tells WebMD.
Third, “if you are going to a picnic, use a cooler where you can maintain food in a cool temperature,” says Harris. “Don’t use it to make things cold, but to keep things cold. Remember to bring enough ice, as well. If you can’t use a cooler, like on a hike, bring foods that don’t need refrigeration. Or freeze your foods, so when you are ready to eat them, they’re thawed out.”
Finally, Harris says, “Keep your utensils and dishes that you use for raw meat separate from those you use to eat.”
Warning signs. The warning signs of food-borne illness are the usual suspects, explains Harris: vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhea, flu-like symptoms, or any combination of these not-so-pleasant symptoms.
“One of the mistakes people make is to assume that the last thing they ate is the cause of their symptoms,” says Harris. “While some types of food-borne illnesses take two to six hours until symptoms appear, others take one or three days. So the culprit is not always the last thing you had, even though that’s probably what came up.”
What to do. Despite best efforts, if you fetch up with something you might suspect is food-borne, keep in mind, “Some food-borne illnesses, such as E. coli O157:H7, can be life-threatening, particularly for young children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems,” according to the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Symptoms that are severe or prolonged may need to be treated. People who believe they may have contracted a food-borne illness should call their physician.”
While mosquito bites used to be little more than annoying and itchy bumps on your arm or behind your ear, now we have even more reason to avoid them with things like West Nile virusand Triple E (Eastern equine encephalitis) making headlines.
How to avoid it. Your attack against a mosquito bite is three-pronged, according to the CDC’s web site: “Use insect repellent, particularly those with DEET, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus; wear as much clothing as the warm weather will allow; and avoid the outdoors during dusk and dawn — peak biting times.”
Warning signs. Mosquito bites will appear as red, raised bumps on your skin. Worse, they’ll itch.
What to do. Mosquito bites usually go away in less than a week, according to the web site of the University of Maryland Medical Center. In the meantime, you can wash the area and keep it clean, use an ice pack or a cool compress to alleviate itching, take an antihistamine, or use an anti-itching cream, such as calamine lotion.
Nearly 80% of people infected with West Nile virus will not have any symptoms. If you start to experience symptoms like fever, headache, body aches, nausea, vomiting, and sometimes swollen lymph glands or a skin rash on the chest, stomach, and back, according to the CDC’s web site, see your doctor. There’s a chance these could be symptoms of West Nile virus.
Swimmer’s ear is a kid’s nightmare when summer finally arrives.
“Just like when your fingers get pruney when you’re in the water too long, the same thing happens to your ears,” says Galier.
When you swim, or even shower or bathe, water can get trapped in your ear canal, causing the canal to get inflamed and infected.
How to avoid it. Gone are the days of Silly Putty in your ears. Now it’s simply wax ear plugs, or custom-fit ear plugs, explains Galier, to prevent swimmer’s ear.
Warning signs. “The symptoms of swimmer’s ear are ear pain and decreased hearing,” says Galier.
You might also experience, according to the web site of the American Academy of Otolaryngology, a sensation that the ear is full, fever, or swollen lymph nodes.
What to do. “Treating swimmer’s ear requires a prescription,” says Galier. “You need to see your doctor.”
There’s nothing worse than a sunburn in the summer. It hurts, it looks funny, and it means you have to stay inside until it gets better — or go outside in the hot summer sun fully clothed to protect your burnt-to-a-crisp skin. Why does the sun cook us like a strip of bacon? According to the CDC’s web site, “Sunlight consists of infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light, and ultraviolet light consists of UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. The UVA rays cause tanning and wrinkling, while UVB rays cause sunburn, aging, wrinkling, and skin cancer.”
How to avoid it. It’s simple — either stay inside or wear sunscreen. According to the CDC’s web site, “Dermatologists recommend using a full-spectrum sunscreen that blocks or absorbs all UV rays.” And of course, don’t think just because it’s cloudy you can skip the sunscreen. Most UV rays pass right through clouds.
Warning signs. While the sun might feel nice while you’re baking underneath it, a few hours later, you’ll pay the price if you didn’t protect yourself with sunscreen. According to the CDC’s web site, “Symptoms usually start about four hours after sun exposure, worsen in 24-36 hours, and resolve in three to five days. In mild sunburn, the skin becomes red, warm, and tender. More serious burns are painful, and the skin becomes swollen and may blister.”
What to do. The bad news is, there’s really no way to treat a sunburn — you just need to ride it out. The CDC recommends aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol), or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) to relieve pain and headache and reduce fever; drinking water to help rehydrate; and cool baths.
If the sunburn is more severe and blisters develop, the CDC’s web site recommends, “Lightly bandage or cover the area with gauze to prevent infection. The blisters should not be broken, as this will slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection.”