Ah, summer. The season of shorts and shirt sleeves, barbecues and vacations . . . but also sunburn, rashes and bugs determined to get a piece of you. Fortunately, most of summer’s dangers can be prevented. Here is a guide to common seasonal problems and how to treat them.
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.
The protection: When you’re outside at dawn and dusk, wear long sleeves, long pants, socks and closed-toe shoes. Spray clothes and exposed skin with an insect repellent containing DEET, picaridin or oil of lemon eucalyptus. If you are bitten, cool compresses and a topical over-the-counter steroid cream such as hydrocortisone (Cortizone-10 and its generics) can ease the itching. 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.
The peril: A deer tick as small as a poppy seed can carry Lyme disease as well as other diseases, such as anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Ticks can also cause ehrlichiosis 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. Inspect your skin, including your armpits and groin, and use tweezers to gently remove any attached ticks you find. (Remove the whole body, including the head.) Get medical help if you develop signs or symptoms of tick-borne illness, including the bull’s-eye rash characteristic of the majority of Lyme disease cases, chills, fever, fatigue, headaches and muscle or joint pain.
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 they are rarely serious.
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. 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 its generics) can help ease burning or itching. If you’ve had severe reactions to insect stings, carry a prescription epinephrine injector at all times.
The peril: The leaves of poison ivy, oak and sumac contain urushiol, a highly allergenic chemical that triggers 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 into contact with them, such as clothing or a pet.
The protection: Learn each plant’s identifying features. 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 think you’ve been exposed to urushiol, wash the area with cool water and mild soap. Rinse clothes or other contaminated objects, and hose down pets that might have tramped through the plants. Cool showers and compresses, and over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream can ease the discomfort of a poison-plant rash, while calamine lotion, oatmeal baths and zinc oxide can help to dry oozing blisters.
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.
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 both UVA and UVB radiation. Check your skin regularly for unusual moles, which could indicate skin cancer.
The peril: Fungi flourish in warm, moist, dark places, such as the inside of running shoes and wet bathing suits. Fungal infections usually show up as an itchy brownish-red rash on the feet (athlete’s foot), groin (jock itch) or armpits, or under the breasts. If left untreated, they can lead to secondary infections.
The protection: Remove wet clothes or bathing suits promptly. Wear flip-flops when in a locker room or pool area. If you have symptoms of a fungal infection, wash the area daily with soap and water, and dry thoroughly. Apply an over-the-counter antifungal medication such as clotrimazole (Lotrimin AF and generics) or miconazole (Micatin and generics) daily for at least two weeks. If symptoms worsen or haven’t cleared up after four weeks, see a doctor.
For further guidance, go to www.ConsumerReports.org/Health, where more detailed information, including CR’s ratings of prescription drugs, treatments, hospitals and healthy-living products, is available to subscribers.