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Protect yourself from hot-weather perils

How to deal with summer sun, mosquitos, ticks, bees, and poison ivy

Published: June 2013

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Summer. The season of shorts and shirt sleeves, barbecues, and vacations … but also sunburn, rashes, and bugs determined to get a piece of you.

“We’re all relieved when the weather warms up and we don’t have to worry as much about the dryness, itching, and other ravages of winter,” says Jessica Krant, M.D., a dermatologist in New York City and a member of Consumer Reports’ medical advisory board. “But summer brings its own perils for the skin, in part because so much more of it is exposed.” Krant cites sunburn, heat rashes, sun-sensitivity reactions, poison ivy, and biting critters among the summer-specific problems she deals with in her practice.

Fortunately, most of summer’s dangers can be prevented with the right precautions. Following is our guide to common seasonal problems and how to treat them.

The sun

The peril

The sun’s powerful ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B radiation can leave you with a painful sunburn and over the long haul contribute to wrinkles and skin cancer. You’re especially susceptible if you take one of the many drugs that increase sun sensitivity, including certain antibiotics (fluoroquinolones, sulfonamides, and tetracyclines), diuretics (furosemide and hydrochlorothiazide), and oral and topical retinoids (acitretin, isotretinoin, tazarotene, and tretinoin).

The protection

Use a sunscreen with a sun-protection factor (SPF) of at least 40 on any exposed skin. Look for a product that’s water-resistant and labeled broad spectrum, which means that it’s formulated to protect against UVA and UVB radiation. See our updated buying guide and Ratings for our top products and our advice on sunscreens for kids and pregnant women.

Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside to give it time to absorb. Reapply every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating heavily. Check your skin regularly for unusual moles, which could indicate skin cancer, using a mirror or another person to examine hard-to-see areas. And consider seeing a dermatologist if you are at high risk for skin cancer.

Sun protection doesn’t end with sunscreen. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, and sun-protective clothing (dark colored with a tight weave) when outdoors. Avoid being out in the early afternoon, when the sun blazes strongest.

Mosquito bites

The peril

Mosquito bites are not only vexing. They can also transmit the dangerous West Nile virus and other diseases, including malaria and dengue fever, a tropical illness that is increasing in frequency throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Last summer’s West Nile outbreak ended up being the biggest since 2003. As of December 2012 the virus had infected 5,387 people in 48 states, resulting in 243 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The protection

When you’re outside at dawn and dusk, wear long sleeves, long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes because this is when mosquitoes are most active. Spray clothes and exposed skin with an insect repellent containing deet, picaridin, or oil of lemon eucalyptus. See the top picks from our most recent lab tests of insect repellents. Avoid tight-fitting clothing (mosquitoes can bite right through), and perfume and aftershave, both of which can attract them. Other helpful steps include installing or repairing screens on windows and doors, using air-conditioning, and emptying standing water from gutters and containers in your yard.

If you are bitten, cool compresses and a topical over-the-counter steroid cream, such as hydrocortisone (Cortizone-10 and generic), can ease the itching. Applying calamine lotion or a dab or two of undiluted white vinegar might also help, our medical advisers say. See a doctor if you develop symptoms that could indicate a mosquito-borne infection, including a fever, a headache or body aches, nausea, vomiting, swollen lymph glands, or a rash on your torso.

Tick bites

The peril

A deer tick as small as a poppy seed can carry Lyme disease and other diseases, such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Reported cases of all three are increasing. The tiny ticks are commonly found in the Northeast and upper Midwest during the summer. Ticks can also cause ehrlichiosis (a disease most common in the South and the East) and Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which despite its name is most prevalent east of the Mississippi River.

The protection

Wear insect repellent and long sleeves, long pants, socks, and closed-toe shoes when walking through wooded or grassy areas during the summer. Tuck your shirt into your pants and pants into socks. Inspect your skin when you go indoors, including your armpits and groin, and use tweezers to gently remove any attached ticks you find. (Take care to remove the whole body, including the head.) Ticks have to be attached to your body for at least 36 hours in order to transmit Lyme disease.

Get medical help if you develop signs or symptoms of tick-borne illness. In addition to the bull’s-eye rash characteristic of most Lyme disease cases, tick-borne illnesses can cause chills, fever, fatigue, headaches, and muscle or joint pain. Prompt treatment with antibiotics can generally stop the infection and prevent more serious complications, such as acute arthritis and facial paralysis (with Lyme disease), secondary infections such as difficulty breathing or bleeding disorders (ehrlichiosis), and widespread heart, joint, or kidney damage (Rocky Mountain spotted fever). See when you need to be tested for Lyme disease.

Bee stings and spider bites

Wasp

The peril

Bee stings are uncomfortable for most people because of localized pain and swelling, but they can cause life-threatening reactions in people who are highly allergic. Spider bites can be severe, with ulceration and secondary infections, but are rarely serious. Fire ants are prevalent in the Southeast and dwell in colonies in large dirt mounds; step on one and within seconds you can accumulate an ankle’s worth of stings.

The protection

Stinging insects, including bees, yellow jackets, wasps, and hornets, usually attack only when disturbed. So avoid swatting at them or approaching their nests or hives. Watch for fire-ant mounds; don’t sit or step on them. If you’re stung by a bee, carefully remove the stinger. Cold compresses, over-the-counter steroid creams such as hydrocortisone, and oral antihistamines such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl Allergy and generic) can help ease burning or itching.

Fire ants

If needed, you can take an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol and generic), ibuprofen (Advil and generic), or naproxen (Aleve and generic), for discomfort. If you’ve had severe reactions to insect stings, be sure to carry a prescription epinephrine injector such as EpiPen or Twinject at all times. Get medical help if inflammation and swelling extend well beyond the sting site.

Black widow and brown recluse spiders, which are poisonous, generally bite only if disturbed. You can protect yourself by wearing long sleeves and gloves if you’re gathering wood for a campfire or cleaning out a shed or under a porch. If you suspect that you’ve been bitten by a poisonous spider, try to save it for identification, clean the wound, apply an ice pack to the area, and get immediate medical attention. Prompt treatment with antivenin (an anti-venom) might be needed to prevent systemic illness and damage to your nervous system.

Poisonous plants

Poison ivy

The peril

The leaves of poison ivy, oak, and sumac contain urushiol, a highly allergenic chemical that causes an itchy, blistery rash in most people. Even if you don’t touch the plants, you can get the rash from contact with smoke from burning the leaves or from touching something else that has come in contact with them, such as clothing or a pet. (But most pets aren’t allergic to urushiol, so while your dog’s contact with poison ivy can give you a rash, the dog probably won’t get a rash.)

Poison oak

The protection

Learn the identifying features of each plant. Poison ivy and oak have leaves clustered in threes, with the longest stalk in the center. Poison sumac has rows of leaflets and grows as a tall shrub or small tree in swampy areas. If you’ve touched the plants or think you’ve been exposed to urushiol, wash the area with cool water and mild soap, and use a brush for under your fingernails. Also rinse clothes or other contaminated objects, and hose down pets that might have tramped through the plants.

If you have a history of reactions or exposure is unavoidable, consider applying IvyBlock (about $12 for a 4-ounce bottle) before going outside. It’s an over-the-counter lotion approved by the Food and Drug Administration for preventing poison ivy, oak, and sumac rash when applied at least 15 minutes before contact.

A poison-plant rash will generally appear 12 to 48 hours after exposure and can last as long as two to three weeks. Cool showers and compresses, and over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can ease the discomfort, while calamine lotion, oatmeal baths, and zinc oxide can help to dry oozing blisters. Avoid scratching; it won’t spread the rash (unless the sap remains under your fingernails), but it can lead to an infection. If the rash is severe, consult a doctor, who might recommend a prescription corticosteroid.

Editor's Note: A version of this article first appeared in the monthly newsletter Consumer Reports on Health. 
   

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