Avoid Sunburn, Insect Stings, and Other Health Bummers This Summer

Don’t let these common issues keep you from enjoying the great outdoors

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Summer brings many joys: warm and sunny weather, a riot of plants and flowers that can turn your garden into a paradise, and plenty of daylight in which to enjoy it all.

But some of these perks come with downsides. These might include problems that are more common as you get older—such as taking a prescription or over-the-counter medication that makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, or becoming easily ­fatigued by heat and humidity.

Fortunately, with a few simple precautions, it’s easy to avoid some of summer’s most common annoyances and hazards. Here’s how—along with tips for what to do when you encounter them.

A Rash From Poison Ivy, Poison Oak, or Poison Sumac

• Know what these poisonous plants look like, and avoid them. Poison ivy and poison oak are vines or bushes with leaves grouped in threes. They may have yellow or green flowers and white, yellowish-green, or amber berries. Poison sumac is a woody shrub with leaves grouped in sets of seven to 13 and arranged in pairs. It may have pale-yellow or cream-colored berries.

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• Uncertain? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers pictures to help you identify these plants.

• If you think you brushed up against a poisonous plant, go inside and immediately wash your hands and body.

• Change and wash your clothes. The plant’s rash-causing substance can linger on unwashed clothes, allowing you to spread it around your home, says Jennifer Namazy, M.D., an allergist at Scripps Clinic in San Diego.

• Treat the rash with hydrocortisone or a wet compress.

A Sunburn From Too Much Sun

• Wear sunscreen on exposed skin whenever you’re outside. Stay in the shade when possible.

• Ask your doctor or pharmacist whether any prescription or OTC meds you’re taking, such as diuretics, antibiotics, and painkillers, can cause sun sensitivity. Older adults may be taking two or more of these, raising sunburn risks, says Dima Qato, Pharm.D., Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Pharmacy.

If you get sunburned, try a cool shower or bath, and apply moisturizer to your damp skin afterward.

• An anti-inflammatory painkiller, such as aspirin or ibuprofen, can help with swelling and pain.

• Stay out of the sun for a while to let your skin heal.

• If you’re taking drugs for chronic conditions and you’ve repeatedly experienced sunburn, see your doctor, who may be able to adjust your regimen to reduce sun sensitivity.

If you need sunscreen, consider one of these top-rated products from Consumer Reports’ tests.

Stings From Wasps, Bees, and More

• Avoid flowery-scented soaps and perfumes—even if you can’t smell them, a stinging insect probably can, according to CDC scientist Brenda Jacklitsch, Ph.D.

• When eating outside, keep a close watch on food and drinks. Bees and wasps can land there—and can even hide in straws—and you don’t want your mouth to be stung.

• Wear light colors; dark or bright ones may attract bugs.

• Don’t swat at a stinging insect; simply get away quickly, and if it’s persistent, seek shelter inside a building or car.

• If stung, remove the stinger by wiping it with gauze or scraping it with your fingernail. Doing this right after the sting may help limit the dose of venom you receive.

Bites From Mosquitoes, Ticks, and Ants

• Keep mosquitoes and ticks from biting by using insect repellent. CR recommends those with 15 to 30 percent deet.

• In grassy areas or the woods, tuck your long pants into your socks, and consider treating your clothes and shoes with permethrin.

• Check yourself for ticks when you go inside.

• If fire ants are a problem where you live, wear closed-toe shoes and gloves when working in your yard, and steer clear of any ant mounds.

Remove an attached tick with fine-tipped tweezers.

• If you develop a fever or rash, see a doctor. These could be signs of a tick-borne illness, such as Lyme disease.

• For mosquito or ant bites, clean the site with soap and water. For itching, take an antihistamine, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl and generic), or use topical hydrocortisone cream.

If you need insect repellent, consider one of these top-rated products from Consumer Reports’ tests.

Getting Sick From Heat and Humidity

• In humid weather, it’s more difficult to stay cool because your sweat doesn’t evaporate as quickly as it normally does. And certain medications, including diuretics, can make you more sensitive to the heat. Keep yourself hydrated—make it a habit to sip water throughout the day.

• Try to keep your body temperature normal by staying in air-conditioned spaces or taking cooling baths or showers, especially if you feel nauseated, weak, or headachy.

• If your body heats up too much, you risk experiencing heatstroke, a potentially fatal condition that occurs when your body temperature reaches 103° F or higher. Know the signs of heatstroke: fainting, confusion, nausea, and not sweating in spite of heat.

• If you suspect it in someone, call 911 immediately, and start cooling down the person by any means—spraying them with a garden hose or getting them into a cool shower or a tub of cool water.

From the Tip Jar

On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports' experts offer host Jack Rico advice on making the most of sunscreen, the best natural light for taking photos, and which insect repellents to use.

Editor’s Note: This article also appeared in the July 2019 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob