We may all be dreaming of a long sunny summer ahead and if it does not materialise many plan to travel abroad instead. As wonderful as the fine weather can be it may also throw up some seasonal health problems and worries. However, with a little forward planning they need not spoil the fun this time of year. Here are some of my healthy summer tips:
Whether staying at home or travelling to sunnier climes it is important to think of sun safety. Our latitude in Ireland means that the UV index (risk of sunburn) can be high even on overcast days. The months of April to September are the time of greatest risk. Unfortunately rates of skin cancer continue to increase year on year making it the most common form of cancer in Ireland.
Skin cancer and premature aging of the skin are caused by the harmful effects of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays on the skin. Unsightly benign and precancerous lesions as well as common skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma, basal cell carcinoma and melanoma come in many different forms and are best diagnosed by inspection of the skin by a trained medical professional. A biopsy may be needed for formal diagnosis.
The skin damage (sunburn or tanning) that creates these cancers is often done at a young age with a significant lag time of at least 10-15 years before a cancer forms. The common position of these skin cancers gives a clue to their origin. Most often they appear on the tops of ears and noses, foreheads, shoulders and torso in men and chest and legs in women as these are the most likely areas to have repeated sun exposure.
So what can you do to protect yourself?
The Australians, used to dealing with extreme sun, have long followed the Slip, Slop, Slap regime..!
- Slip on a T Shirt (especially important to keep children in loose cover up clothing)
- Slop on the sun cream (at least factor 30 for Irish skin)
- Slap on a hat (and sunglasses for eye protection)
Children need particular care and learn best when adults lead by example. Babies under 6 months should be kept in the shade as much as possible with skin protected by clothing and sun cream applied to exposed skin areas.
Keep well hydrated in the heat and avoid sun-beds which are particularly dangerous (and illegal) for children and have been proven to be linked to malignant melanoma the most dangerous form of skin cancer. If your skin does burn moisturisers and aloe vera may provide some welcome relief to the discomfort but cannot unfortunately prevent long term skin damage.
If you have noticed any change in a mole or skin lesion that you are concerned about, please do not hesitate to attend your doctor for review. In particular, a mole which has a sudden change in size, colour, and shape, bleeding or itching can be a warning sign. A significant number of melanomas will commence on skin where there has been no pre-existing mole. For lots of useful tips visit www.cancer.ie/sunsmart/
Barbeques & Food Safety
We will hopefully be engaging in a long lazy summer here at home and if the weather obliges many will be dusting off the Barbeque. Unfortunately, an enjoyable afternoon with family and friends may too easily be marred by problems with food safety resulting in an increase in food poisoning at this time of year.
Make sure your party is remembered for all the right reasons by applying the same hygiene rules to your al fresco dining as you do in your everyday kitchen.
Keep distinct areas in both your fridge and food preparation areas for raw and cooked foods. Use separate chopping boards, utensils and cloths to avoid cross contamination. Wash hands regularly when preparing food especially when handling raw meat or fish and clean up as you go.
Food that is prepared in advance and served cold such as salads can often be left sitting out in warm temperatures for long periods increasing the risk of food poisoning. All salads and fruits should be well washed or peeled prior to serving to remove any food borne bacteria on the skin / leaves. Salads with grains such as rice or couscous are the perfect breeding ground for germs and should be kept refrigerated once cooled after cooking, until ready to be served.
Meat requires special precautions. It is very important to ensure that meat juice / marinades that were in contact with the raw meat prior to cooking should never be poured over the meat once cooked. Sausages and burgers are more likely to have bacteria at their centre than whole cuts of meat such as steak and should always be cooked through. Chicken and kebabs often take longer than expected to cook and it can be wise to part cook or finish such items in the oven to avoid undercooking.
When it comes to leftovers – refrigerate promptly and; if in doubt throw them out.
For lots of tips see www.safefood.eu and their useful brochure The A-B-C of BBQ which can be down loaded for free.
For those of us lucky enough to be heading abroad this summer there are some special health issues that it is worth taking time to think about – even for the most seasoned traveller.
For many the simplest, most preventable things can be the ones to put a dampener on a trip away.
Sun safety is vital for our fair skin. See our article above, on staying safe in the sun and using appropriate sun protection for full information. Keep well hydrated in the heat and avoid excessive alcohol.
Water and food may sound harmless but many a holiday have been disrupted by tummy bugs that can be easily avoided.
When it comes to water follow the lead of the locals – if they all drink bottled water you probably should too. In many places this is just a cultural norm and the tap water may be perfectly safe. However, if there are concerns and especially when travelling in the developing world, check with your accommodation for advice and if needed use bottled water for brushing teeth also. Cooled boiled water should be used to prepare food eaten uncooked (such as salad) and infant food and it is best to avoid ice cubes in drinks.
Apply the same common sense to food consumption – avoid undercooked meat, fish and poultry. Don’t leave food sitting out in the heat for long periods. Wash or peel all fruit / salad before eating. If a premises looks unhygienic it is likely its kitchen is too. Let the locals guide you – if a restaurant is packed with happy customers they are probably serving good quality, safe food.
Many destinations which were once seen as exotic are now mainstream – such as North Africa and South East Asia. It is vital to check with your GP regarding the need for travel vaccination (such as Hepatitis A, B and Yellow fever) and malaria prevention in many of these regions.
The Zica virus outbreak, currently affecting South America – which has been linked to rare but serious fetal abnormalities is expected to make its way north this summer to many southern states in the USA where the mosquito which carries it are common in the warmer months. This has special implications for pregnant women or those contemplating pregnancy in future months and excellent, up to date information is available from the CDC. http://www.cdc.gov/zika/
As with all mosquito / insect carried diseases prevention is better than cure and the most important thing is to try to avoid bites in the first place by covering skin with loose light fitting clothing and using a recommended insect repellent on uncovered skin.
And finally remember to consider travel insurance or check with your private health insurer for coverage abroad on your policy. If you have any pre-existing medical conditions, it can be wise to attend for a check-up with your GP prior to traveling and remember to pack any regular medication and copies of medical records or prescriptions along with you.
Many of us are all too familiar with the burning eyes, congestion and dripping nose that accompanies the first sign of fine weather in summer. Up to 20% of the population suffer from ‘Hayfever’ typically affecting the eyes and upper respiratory tract (nose / throat) and 80% of asthma sufferers have some pollen allergy. It is typically diagnosed in the teens and 20’s but can arise later in life or in those who have emigrated and are faced with different pollen from ‘home’. Both tree and grass pollen can be the culprit and the weather can significantly affect the pollen count.
For minor symptoms over the counter preparations can be of great help but for others a visit to the GP may be required.
Antihistamines are the mainstay of treatment. An important consideration is to choose, when possible, a non-drowsy preparation – particularly when driving or for use in children.
Soothing eye drops are also available both on and off prescription depending on the severity of symptoms.
Decongestants are tempting and will work well but need to be used in the short term only. Prolonged use beyond a few days can result in ‘rebound’ congestion where a type of withdrawal from the medication will cause worsening congestion creating a vicious circle.
Simple alternatives can be saline (salt) nose sprays or inhaled essential oils (such as eucalyptus) - the oils can be dropped into a basin of hot water over which you steam your face with a towel covering your head.
For those with chronic, annual symptoms and particularly those with co-existing asthma a steroid is often required. This is usually delivered by nasal spray allowing a small amount of steroid to be delivered locally to the nose (and also helping the eyes). The saline spray and steaming described above can be a very useful tool to help clear the nose before applying the steroid medication, so improving its effect.
Regular treatment is important as this works in a preventative fashion and so should be used from 2 weeks before and throughout Hayfever season to keep symptoms at bay even when feeling better. People with asthma should ensure all of their prescriptions are up to date as asthma attacks may be triggered more frequently at this time of year.