From sunburn and poison ivy to bee stings and car sickness, here's how to solve any seasonal issue.

May 26, 2021
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beach ball
Credit: Mauricio Alejo

You've probably never felt more ready for some fun in the sun. But warm weather can bring its own share of health hazards, too. Here's how to handle (and even prevent) seven common sideliners—from scorched skin to bee stings to poison ivy—so you can kick back with confidence.

The Sun Zaps You

The aftereffects of turning lobster red aren't just a few days of misery. Over-exposure to ultraviolet rays is the primary cause of all types of skin cancer. Getting five or more burns more than doubles your risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest one, per the Skin Cancer Foundation. It estimates that 207,390 new cases will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year. If you do sustain a burn, find some shade, stat, and sip water to cool off and replenish your supply. "One of the skin's most important functions is to work as a barrier to reduce water loss," says Laura Ferris, MD, PhD, an associate professor of dermatology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. "When it's burned, that barrier is impaired, and you can become dehydrated."

At home, take a cool shower, then pat on lotion that contains soothing, hydrating ingredients such as aloe vera (and free of irritating fragrances and alcohol). If you still feel like you're on fire, pop an NSAID, like ibuprofen, and apply a washcloth dampened with cool water—both will help bring down the inflammation. And never mess with blistered or peeling skin. "The blister provides protection and lets the burned skin heal below," Dr. Ferris says. At night, slip into your smoothest cotton pajamas and sheets.

The best course of action, however, is prevention. Stick to the basics: Avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and when you're out, wear protective clothing (a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves) and apply a broad-spectrum SPF-30-or-higher sunscreen every two hours. If you're very fair or have a family history of skin cancer, consider taking a daily supplement with the fern extract Polypodium leucotomos. "It isn't a substitute for sunscreen, but if you do get burned, it can help reduce the severity," Dr. Ferris says.

hot dog
Credit: Illustrations by Hannah Alice

Food Takes the Wrong Tube

You're gobbling it up to jump back in the pool or hungry for hot dogs at a picnic—we get that summer meals are more freewheeling. But please slow down; choking is no joke. In 2019, it killed more than 5,000 people, according to the National Safety Council, and kids under 4 are especially at risk. In the U.S., it causes approximately one child's death every five days. You'll need to act fast. If the victim is coughing forcefully, encourage him to continue—it can dislodge the food. If it doesn't come out, holler for somebody to call 911.

The American Red Cross teaches this two-step technique. Bend the victim over at the waist and give him five firm blows between the shoulder blades with the heel of your hand. "This isn't a tap, tap, tap; this is a smack, smack, smack, because you're using the vibration to loosen whatever is stuck," says Jeffrey L. Pellegrino, PhD, MPH, an assistant professor of emergency management and homeland security at the University of Akron, in Ohio, and American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council member. Then switch to abdominal thrusts. Step behind him and place one foot between his feet. Make a fist, tucking in your thumb, and place it right above his navel. Cover your fist with your other hand and pull into him using an in-and-up "J" motion. Repeat five times. (For an infant under a year old, cradle her facedown with her torso on your forearm, so her head is lower than her chest, and do the back blows. Then, turn her over on your forearm, keeping her head lower down; place two fingers right below her nipple line and give five downward thrusts.) Keep doing sets of five back blows and five abdominal thrusts until the object pops out or help arrives. If the victim loses consciousness, start CPR (brush up on your skills here)—just check the victim's mouth first and remove the object if it has come loose.

Reduce your family's risks by keeping small, rounded objects (marbles, pennies) away from young kids, and cut up risky foods like hot dogs (they're the number-one offender in children under three; slice them in half lengthwise, then into bites) and grapes (cut them into quarters). Never let a little one eat alone or run around during meals. Adults should chew slowly and avoid chomping snacks like nuts and popcorn by the fistful. Other notorious fare: hard candy, gum, nut butters, and tough, crunchy vegetables, like crudités.

bee
Credit: Illustrations by Hannah Alice

A Bee Dive-Bombs

Yes, stings hurt like the devil, but most aren't dangerous. Unless you're among the 0.4 to 0.8 percent of kids or three percent of adults who are very allergic, per the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI), they typically can be treated at home. Start by removing the stinger ASAP. "That reduces the amount of venom it's putting into you," says Dr. Pellegrino. Scrape it with a fingernail, a credit card, or tweezers to get it out. Then ice the spot to ease the swelling.

If the site gets very red and puffy, and still stings, take ibuprofen, says allergist and ACAAI spokesperson Neeta Ogden, MD; it's a pain reliever and an anti-inflammatory. Unsure if the victim's allergic? Look for signs of a severe reaction, aka anaphylaxis, which must be treated with epinephrine (the active ingredient in an EpiPen): coughing, shortness of breath, light-headedness, throat or tongue swelling, chest tightness, nausea, and a rash or hives away from the sting site. If you spot any of these and don't have an EpiPen, call 911, have her lie down, give her an antihistamine (like Benadryl), and keep her head elevated until help arrives.

Better yet, prevent a sting in the first place. Don't swat at bees; that just agitates them. To make yourself less buzz-worthy, wear light-colored clothes and steer clear of flowering plants and open garbage bins. At picnics, cover food and try to drink from cups or closed bottles, not open cans that bees can hide inside. People prone to anaphylaxis should consider venom immunotherapy (a series of shots, typically covered by insurance) to build up a tolerance to the allergens, says Dr. Ogden: "It saves lives."

tick
Credit: Illustrations by Hannah Alice

A Tick Latches On

These bugs are truly taking over: In the past two decades, seven new tickborne germs have been discovered in the U.S., and cases of tickborne illnesses have skyrocketed. Diagnoses of Lyme disease, the best-known, have tripled since the late 1990s. Be aware: They gravitate to warm, moist, hard-to-see places, like your hairline, groin area, armpits, belly button, and in and around your ears.

If you notice on one you, remove the little bugger immediately. The faster you do, the less time it'll have to infect you. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a tick must be attached for at least 36 hours to transmit Lyme. Grasp its body with tweezers or gloved hands, and pull steadily. Ultimately it has to decide to let go, which may take minutes, so be patient. "Eventually, that tick is going to go, 'Okay, fine!' and come out," says Dr. Pellegrino. You can flush it down the toilet or stick it in a resealable plastic bag and hang onto it.

Clean the bite area with soap and water. In general, the CDC doesn't recommend treating tick bites with antibiotics. But if you live in an area where Lyme is common, consider seeing your doctor (if you kept the tick, bring it along); in some circumstances, she may prescribe a short dose to lower your risk of contracting it. For the next 30 days, watch for fever, headache, body ache, fatigue, joint pain, swelling, and—the scarlet letter of Lyme—a rash with a bull's-eye-like ring around it. If any of the above appear, definitely see your doctor.

When communing with nature, steer clear of bushy areas, high grass, and low-hanging branches. Spray on an EPA-approved repellent; you can find a list of them via their website. Also, wear light-colored clothing (the easier to see the leggy varmints), tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks (uncool, but effective), or consider clothing treated with the insecticide permethrin, such as ExOfficio's BugsAway line.

red car
Credit: Illustrations by Hannah Alice

Car Sickness Strikes

For many, summer means road trips (and boat rides, and roller coasters). But for the about one in three of us who get motion-sick, that fantasy is more like a nightmare. Women and kids are most susceptible. For starters, put down (or take away) the tablet, book, or video game, then roll down the window and look outside. "Motion sickness often happens because there's a disconnect between what your inner ear—where you sense motion—is feeling and what your other senses are perceiving," says Benjamin D. Hoffman, MD, FAAP, a pediatrics professor at Oregon Health & Science University, in Portland, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention. Your brain needs to see that you're moving; taking in the scenery helps. The breeze is another useful cue.

Antihistamines and motion-sickness meds can help stop the spinning, too. "People talk about ginger and acupressure bands, but I haven't seen evidence that either work," says Dr. Hoffman. "Be careful about offering hard candies in the car, especially to younger kids, because of the choking risk." To reduce the effects of car sickness, avoid heavy, greasy foods pre-trip, and sit in the front passenger seat if you can. Have queasy older kids strap into a window seat so it's easier to see out. If these tactics don't help, ask your doc about taking an antihistamine or motion-sickness medication about an hour before hitting the road.

poison ivy
Credit: Illustrations by Hannah Alice

Poison Ivy Pounces

Climate change and rising carbon-dioxide levels are helping this menace proliferate; a six-year study led by Duke researchers and published in 2006 found that higher CO2 levels make it grow about 150 percent faster and be more allergenic. Also avoid its itchy cohorts, poison oak and sumac. You have about 20 minutes before the irritating sap, urushiol, sparks its reaction. Wash exposed skin with dish soap and cool—not warm or hot—water. (On a hike, water alone will do.) Put on rubber gloves and throw exposed clothes in the washer, with the hottest water that's fabric-safe. Then don fresh gloves and retrace your steps, wiping all you touched with a rag dampened in soapy water or rubbing alcohol: phone, doorknobs, steering wheel.

If a rash appears, try taming the itch with a cool compress, over-the-counter corticosteroid cream, or calamine lotion; it's okay to combine these with an oral antihistamine. For severe cases when the bumps spread to over 10 percent of your body, or really puff up, call your doctor; she may prescribe topical steroids, prednisone, or a cortisone shot, says Dr. Ogden. Any trouble breathing or swelling of the face, mouth, neck, or genitals merits an immediate ER visit.

As for prevention? Learn to ID toxic plants. Poison ivy grows across the U.S. all year, says Philadelphia horticulturist Umar Mycka. Poison oak lurks mostly on the West Coast and in southeastern states. Poison sumac thrives in the wetlands of the Northeast, Southeast, and Great Lakes. Next, replace the old saying "leaves of three, let them be" with "leaves of three, resemble me." In other words, what sets oak and ivy apart is that their three leaves look sort of human: leaf head, stem neck, two leaf arms atop a stem body. Sumac's leaves are bigger and fern-like, with seven to 13 leaflets. If you find any of them in your yard, glove up, carefully dig it up at the root, and toss it in the trash.

Styling by Fidel Castañeda

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