Summer in the Pacific Northwest is usually mild with highs in the 70s and plenty of rain. For the past couple of years, however, the trend has been more sun, higher heat, less rain. This summer is certainly proving to be hotter and drier than most. We already are in a drought. Drought – Pac Northwest style! Temps in the 80s, lots of sun, higher than normal humidity, and a good soaking rain is rare. For those of us who moved here to escape the heat, summer is here and it’s hot! With the heat and sun come sunburn, heat rash, heat exhaustion, and even heat stroke. There are things we can do to prevent these from happening and treatment when they do.
Some sun exposure is very important for Vitamin D production in the body. Vitamin D plays a big part in immune and neuromuscular function, in modulation of cell growth, reduction of inflammation, and the uptake of calcium and phosphorus in the bones. When the sun hits the skin, it triggers Vit. D synthesis. That’s a good thing! However, we need be mindful of the amount of time our skin is exposed to the damage sun rays can cause.
Sunburn is an acute inflammatory response by the skin in reaction to excessive exposure to sunlight. The harmful changes that occur in the skin cells cytoplasm (a gel like substance that is between the cell membrane and nucleus) and the nucleus itself with long term sun exposure are cumulative over a life span, and can lead to increased incidence of skin cancer. Sunburn is common in this era of popular outside summer activities and clothing styles that leave more skin exposed to the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays. We’ve all had that burning sensation after being in the sun too long. While limiting sun exposure is the most reliable method of preventing sunburn, we do want to be able to bask in the sun, don’t we?
- Limit exposure. Sun rays are strongest between the hours of 10 and 4. Try to avoid exposure during these hours, if possible. The effect of UV rays is stronger as we gain elevation.
- Wear lightweight clothing that covers the skin. White or light colored clothing is better than dark clothing. Consider wide brim hats, long sleeves and long pants. Clothing that contains resins and substances that absorb and/or scatter UV rays can be worn.
- Sunscreen/block. While sunblock is controversial as commercial products contain chemicals that arguably may be carcinogenic or endocrine disruptors, applying some sort of preparation can be beneficial to scatter or block UV rays. Lotions that contain titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide are good choices. Apply to all exposed areas, including the ears, lips, back of the neck, tops of the feet, and backs of the hands, and the part in your hair. Apply frequently.
- Be mindful of pharmaceutical drugs/herbs and possible sun interactions. Some herbs, such as St. John’s Wort if taken internally, can make a person become photosensitive. Consider purchasing a Nursing Drug Handbook by Wolters Kluwer. It’s my go-to book to look up drugs to find herbal interactions and adverse reactions.
- Get out of the sun! Once you feel the first inkling of a burn, move to a shady area or indoors.
- Tepid to cool, not cold, water applications. This can mean cloths soaked in cool water and applied as a compress or submersing in a bath. Consider adding a small amount of willow tincture in the water to reduce the inflammation of the skin and relieve the burn.
- My favorite herbal sunburn relief is an application of pure lavender essential oil followed by a moisturizing salve. My favorite is a comfrey and calendula salve. Lavender takes the heat out of a burn, can prevent the skin from blistering, and causes healthy cell proliferation. The allantoin in comfrey is much like aloe gel, in that it is very moisturizing and soothing to damaged skin cells. Calendula will help prevent infection from occurring in blisters that may break. Apply immediately after a sunburn occurs and then several times a day for a few days after. Keep the salve in the fridge for an additional cooling effect. Salves containing camphor and menthol, including peppermint oil, can help alleviate the burning sensation. These should be used sparingly. If you plan to make your own, use a very small amount of essential oils, such as 2-3% in the preparation.
Heat rash, AKA prickly heat is caused by blocked sweat glands trapping perspiration under the skin. Symptoms can include superficial blisters to deep red bumps. Heat rash can be intensely itchy. The most common places for heat rash to occur is in the folds of the body such as under the breasts, the groin, elbows, armpits, etc.
Heat rash treatment:
- Again, like sunburn, the best way to resolve heat rash is to get out of the sun and heat, and allow the body to cool.
- Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Cool water applications can be beneficial.
- Wear loose clothing and avoid strenuous activity. If the heat rash involves symptoms such as increased pain in the affected area after cooling had occurred, pus discharge, fever, chills, or swollen lymph, seek medical attention.
Heat exhaustion and heat stroke:
The body has regulatory processes in effect to maintain a stable and relatively constant temperature. When a person becomes cold, the muscles shudder to create heat. When hot, sweat glands bring perspiration to the surface of the skin. As the perspiration evaporates with air contact, the body is cooled. Upon extreme heat, humidity, strenuous or mild activity, wearing too many layers or tight fitting clothes on a hot day, certain drugs, and dehydration to name a few, heat exhaustion and the more dangerous and life threatening heat stroke can occur. The body becomes too hot to self-regulate. Symptoms of heat exhaustion can include extreme fatigue, cool moist skin with goose bumps in the heat, dizziness or fainting, nausea, cramping, flushed or pale skin, headaches, weak/rapid pulse. Heat stroke includes the previous symptoms with the addition of unconsciousness, confusion, delirium, hallucinations, slurred speech, and irritability. These are only partial symptoms.
Heat exhaustion/heat stroke prevention:
- Stay out of the sun and heat during the peak hours.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Drink plenty of fluids. Drink plenty of fluids. Although coffee and other drinks that contain caffeine are technically fluids, be mindful that caffeine is a diuretic.
- Stay away from alcohol. While enjoying a cold brew in the sun might sound refreshing, alcohol puts a strain on the liver and kidneys. Alcohol is also a diuretic. Diuretics leach potassium from the body. Potassium is a vital electrolyte that governs muscle cramping and heartbeat.
- Avoid strenuous activity of any kind.
- Avoid overdressing, especially in synthetic fabrics. Wear loose fitting, light colored clothing.
Heat exhaustion/heat stroke treatment:
If a person exhibits any of the above symptoms, call 911. It is imperative to start treatment immediately, before help arrives.
- Get them out of the sun and into shade or a cool place.
- Remove excess clothing.
- Cool the person down with whatever means is at your disposal. Spray them down with water from a hose, have them sit in the tub with cool water showering over them. Ice packs or cool water compresses applied to the back of the neck, groin, armpits, and head.
- If the person is conscious and can take fluids, give them cool water. Avoid coffee and alcohol.
A few years ago, a person I knew at the time got heat stroke. It was very hot and sunny; he drank a pot of coffee, and started mowing the grass in the heat of the day. He refused my plying him with lemonade, cold water, admonishments to get out of the heat and sun, etc. He became very irritable and would not listen to reason. You can bring a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, eh? After a few hours, he came into the house and collapsed on the couch. He refused water, or any cooling down ministrations. He also refused any medical help. Later that evening, he began to hallucinate that people were on the roof. For 5 days afterward, he hallucinated. A couple of months later, he had another episode of hallucinations. In effect, because of his refusal to do what needed to be done to treat the heat stroke, he fried his brain. Heat stroke can cause permanent damage to the brain, liver, kidneys, muscles, and heart, and even death. Don’t let this happen to you. Be smart in the heat. Drink water and eat watermelon!
Stay cool, friends. If you want to find me, go to www.cedarmountainherbs.com and www.facebook.com/CedarMountainHerbSchool. I’ll be the one in the shade, sipping cool water with a bit of crushed fresh spearmint in the glass.