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  • Sheehans Pharmacist

Sunburns and Poison Plants and Bugs – OH MY! Tips to Enjoy Summer Safely

We all love when the weather warms up and the sun is out most of the day — it can mean camping trips, hiking, family vacations, hitting the beach, or so may other fun outdoor activities. When you and your family are heading outdoors, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself from the dangers of summer, including sun exposure, poison plants, and bugs. Following these simple tips can mean that your summer fun doesn’t end in unwanted body pains.

closeup of woman putting sunscreen on legs

Enjoy the Sun Responsibly

There’s nothing wrong with catching some rays; in fact, ultraviolet (UV) rays are what helps the body produce Vitamin D on its own, an important part of bone, immune, and overall health. Overexposure to those same UV rays, however, can have severe short- and long-term consequences.

The short-term risk of too much sun is a painful sunburn. Some medications can increase your sensitivity to UV light, making sun damage to your skin and eyes more likely. ¹ Tanning is how your body tries to provide a barrier to additional damage, but it is usually not enough protection in reality. Over the longer term, too much UV light can lead to premature skin aging (complete with age spots and wrinkles) and skin cancer, the most common type of cancer in the United States. ²

Sunlight is strong, with up to 80% of the rays getting through even on a cloudy day. ² So how do you get the benefits of the sun without taking on too much risk? With basic planning for your time outdoors, you can lower your risk of skin damage.

Use Sunscreen ²

Not all sunscreens are created equally — if you’re going to the effort of putting something on, make sure it’s one that actually has benefit. Even indoors, you should use sunscreen if you are getting sunlight as UVA rays can penetrate window glass and damage your skin. Sunscreens labeled as “Broad Spectrum” work to block both UVA and UVB rays, which means that it will help protect you from sunburns as well as lower your risk of premature skin aging and skin cancer. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recommends using a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater.

Make sure you are reapplying sunscreen at least every 2 hours you are in the sun or if you towel off your body; reapply even more often if you are swimming or sweating a lot since sunscreen is not waterproof.

Take Advantage of Other Barriers

Sunscreen alone does not always prevent sunburn and skin damage. Pairing it with other preventative measures is important to offer the best protection. An easy step to take is to stick to the shade, especially between 10 am and 2 pm when the sun is at its most intense. ²

Not all shade will block all of the sun’s rays either; adding smart clothing options can give you more protection. It doesn’t always make sense to do so, but long-sleeved shirts and pants offer the most protection, as the sun does damage when reaching bare skin. Dry, dark clothing with a tight knit will likely offer a better barrier than dry, light-colored clothing — but in intense heat, that might be too warm. ³ Consider what you can handle, even for part of the time you’re outside.

Hats are a great barrier, too! A hat with a wide brim that goes all the way around is your best bet, giving shade to not only your face but also your ears and neck. Canvas is a better material than straw when it comes to creating a barrier from the sun’s rays. ³

While you’re taking all these steps to protect your skin, don’t forget about protecting your eyes. Not only can direct rays damage your eyes and the sensitive skin around your eyes, the light reflecting off sand, water, and more can do damage as well. Look for sunglasses that list a UV400 rating or “100% UV protection” on the label; darker tints don’t necessarily mean more protection, so checking the label is important. Bigger sunglasses that wrap around the sides and cover the whole eye socket can offer better protection than smaller options. ²

Watch out for Poisonous Plants

If you’re spending time outside in almost any part of the United States, there’s a chance of encountering a poisonous plant. Poison ivy, oak, and sumac look different and grow differently, but they all can cause unpleasant effects if you encounter them. Luckily, there are easy steps you can take to minimize the effects of the plants if you aren’t able to avoid them.

Know What to Watch For

Poison ivy is the most common of the three plants and can be found growing in all 48 contiguous states (some more than others) and throughout most of Canada; though most common in the United States, it does grow globally as well. Poison oak is next most common and is primarily found in the western part of North America; poison sumac is the least common of the three and grows in the swampy areas of some southeastern US states. ⁴ All three plants like moisture, so they are often found growing near waterways; they don’t do as well in higher elevations, like the Rocky Mountains. ⁵

Even within each species, the appearance can vary; however, they can all be identified in the fall at least by their small berries, which are white, cream, or yellow. Similarly shaped plants that are harmless do not grow berries of this kind. ⁵

People often realize they’ve come in contact with one of these plants when they develop a rash. This is a reaction to the oily sap that is on pretty much every part of all three plants. While the oil is still on the skin, your skin may continue to react. The severity often matches the exposure — the more oil on your skin, the worse the rash may be. ⁶

The good news is that the rash isn’t contagious. If it seems like it spread, it’s actually the oil transferring from one person to another. The oil can stick to gardening tools, fabric, and even pet fur until it’s washed off, so cleaning your skin along with anything you had with you when you were around one of these poisonous plants is essential. ⁶

Speed is Key ⁶

If you do have a run-in with a poisonous plant, or if you even just think you may have been exposed to the plant’s oils, washing off as soon as possible is the best way to prevent the oil’s spread. This includes washing your skin, your clothes, and even other objects that could have touched the plant, such as gardening tools and gloves. The oil can stick to pet fur, too, so be sure to give your pet a bath quickly as well. Our pharmacy can make product recommendations, if needed.

If you do get blisters or a rash, try not to itch them and irritate the skin further. Instead, try over-the-counter options to treat the cause as well as the symptoms. Our pharmacists can help with suggestions for removing the oil from the skin as well as relieving the itch. If the rash doesn’t get better, spreads, or has pus, talk to your healthcare provider right away. You should also seek medical advice if you have a high fever or difficulty breathing following exposure.

Keep the Bugs Away

Bug bites aren’t just annoying, they can be dangerous. Beyond the painful itch they can leave behind, many bugs carry dangerous illnesses, including West Nile virus and Lyme disease. Before you go outdoors into the bug’s world, take precautions to make sure you don’t bring bad souvenirs back home with you.

Get the Right Repellent ⁷

Manufacturers of insect repellent can register with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) when they have proven that their product is safe and effective, including when used by pregnant or breastfeeding women.

EPA-registered repellents will have one of the below active ingredients:

  • DEET

  • Picaridin (known as KBR 3023 and icaridin outside the US)

  • IR3535

  • Oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE)

  • Para-menthane-diol (PMD)

  • 2-undecanone

It’s important to pay attention to the label ingredients and instructions. When applying, be sure to spray the repellent on any exposed skin; you do not need to spray it on skin that is covered by your clothes. When used at the same time of sunscreen, the sunscreen should be applied before the repellent.

If you are using the repellent on children, you should spray the repellent on your hands and then spread it on the child’s face rather than spraying it on directly. If your child is three years or younger, make sure that the active ingredient is not OLE or PMD.

Wearing long sleeves and pants when possible, along with tall socks and boots, can offer an additional barrier between you and the bugs. You can treat your clothes with 0.5% permethrin to add more protection (or you can buy pre-treated clothing).

Limit Your Exposure

Knowing where the bugs are likely to be — and limiting your chances of coming across them in those places — is an easy step to prevent a bug bite. Ticks, for instance, like wooded areas with a lot of ground cover, like tall grass and thick leaf litter. Sticking to the middles of trails and areas with less ground cover can help lower your chances of ticks getting on you. ⁸

Mosquitos, meanwhile, flourish in humidity and like to lay their eggs near standing water. Do what you can to limit the mosquito population near your own home by regularly cleaning damp, dark areas around the outside of your home and by making sure water isn’t forming puddles or pools of water anywhere on your property.

Even if you take all the necessary precautions, bugs may still get through to your skin. If you have been somewhere you may have come across a tick, it’s important to check yourself over immediately when you get home. Ticks can catch a ride on pets, clothes, and gear, so give everything a good check. Showering within two hours of getting home is recommended by the CDC, as it can help remove unattached ticks and gives you a better opportunity for a thorough once-over. Ticks tend to gravitate toward certain areas of the body: ⁸

  • Under the arms

  • In and around the ears

  • Inside belly button

  • Back of the knees

  • In and around the hair

  • Between the legs

  • Around the waist

Paying attention to your surroundings and the weather can go a long way toward having a safe summer. You can take simple steps to prevent the outdoors from putting a damper on your summer fun — and if you do end up dealing with the not-so-great consequences of enjoying the outdoors, make sure to stop by our pharmacy for treatment options!


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