Back by popular demand, here is another installment of “Ask the DIY Doctor” (also known as The Partner). This time around we focused on common questions and concerns regarding Summer. Find out the basics of what to do if you do get sunburned, what the skinny is on the new FDA guidelines about sunscreen, eating after swimming and if you really are playing Russian Roulette when you eat that potato chip you dropped at the office picnic…..
It’s summertime and I’m sure that many of you have plans for bbq’s, beach trips and lots of outdoor DIY home projects. Courtney asked me to do a little piece on some common health questions that people run across in the summer. The first question goes into a lot of depth because it’s a huge public health issue.
1) What do I do when I get a sunburn?
Well, the easy answer is, don’t get one! Once you get a sunburn, there really aren’t a lot of things you can do to make the burn go away faster. Most burns are superficial and will heal over the course of several days to a week. For mild burns, placing ice packs and keeping the skin cool by avoiding further sun exposure and taking cool showers often help. A lot of people also swear by the use of aloe vera, although studies haven’t shown it to be particularly helpful.
For burns that really sting or itch, using over-the-counter NSAIDs such as Ibuprofen or Naproxen can help reduce some of the inflammation of the burn. I’ve also found that using a topical anesthetic gel, such as Solarcaine can be helpful too.
If the sunburn causing blistering, then that indicates that the burn has reached some of the deeper layers of skin. This poses three problems. The first is that there is a potential for scars to develop. The second is that blistering wounds can often become infected. The third is that deep sunburns are the most likely to lead to the development of skin cancers. If you do develop a blistering sunburn, I would seek medical attention, particularly if it starts to become infected. Make sure that you get out of the sun and make sure to use an antibiotic ointment such as Neosporin or Bacitracin to keep the area clean.
Now, obviously, the best way to treat sunburn is to never get one! Ways to avoid excessive sun exposure include wearing wide-brimmed hats as well as long-sleeved loose-fitting clothing. That said, I’m totally vain and you’ll probably catch me on the beach with only my swimming trunks on! So, the best way to protect yourself in that scenario is to use sunscreen liberally, but I’ve found that there is a lot of misinformation about sunscreens out there.
UV radiation essentially comes in two forms, UVA and UVB. UVA accounts for about 90% of UV radiation that hits our skin and UVB accounts for the rest. UVA penetrates into the deeper layers of the skin and causes most of the tanning changes we get. Unfortunately, it is also responsible for causing premature skin aging and wrinkling, and increasing the risk of skin cancer. UVB penetrates into the more shallow layers of the skin and is most responsible for actual reddening of the skin and sunburns. Interestingly, tanning beds usually use a very high percentage of UVA, so that you tan, but don’t burn as easily (that said, it also does more skin damage).
Many people buy sunscreen based on SPF, but what exactly does it mean? Well, the number represents the increased proportion of time it would take for someone to get a sunburn. So, for instance, if you would get red after being in the sun for 10 minutes at midday, a SPF 15 sunscreen would theoretically increase that by 15 times, or 150 minutes.
There are two fundamental problems with SPF. First, most sunscreens have to be reapplied every 2-3 hours because you sweat it off, rub it off, etc (there’s no such thing as sweatproof or waterproof sunscreen). So, there’s really no point in applying sunscreens with SPF greater than about 30 unless you’re exceptionally fair-skinned and burn quickly. Second, SPF only refers to UVB protection. As I mentioned earlier, it’s UVA rays that are associated with most of the long-term damage associated with sun exposure. Currently, there are no FDA guidelines regarding rating UVA protection, although they are being developed. For the moment, make sure you buy a product that specifically states that it has both UVA/UVB protection and make sure to apply the sunscreen liberally at least every 2 hours and anytime you come out of the water. Here’s to healthy skin this summer!
2) Is it true that I shouldn’t swim right after I eat?
Well, I get asked this question a lot. We’ve all been told by someone that if we swim after eating, we could get a stitch in our side and then drown. Now, this is something that’s not taught in medical school so I had to dig around for some more information on this. It turns out that, probably, there’s no increased risk of cramping with physical exertion after eating, so there’s no absolute reason not to go swimming after eating.
With that said, I do have two thoughts about this. First of all, exercising on a full stomach can cause feelings of indigestion or nausea and I can’t imagine that it would be fun to be swimming (or running) on a full stomach. More importantly, cramps are possible at any time, so make sure that you never go swimming alone. Make sure that you go with at least one responsible person or, better yet, go to a pool or beach where there are lifeguards. I can’t tell you how many tragic drowning I’ve had to see over the years because someone went swimming by themselves and something happened.
3) Damn it! I’ve dropped my hot dog on the floor! If I pick it up within five seconds, can I still eat it?
Ick! There’s no clear answer to this question. The moment food contacts a surface, it has the potential to pick up bacteria. The longer the contact time, the more contaminants food will pick up, but there’s really no “safe” time. Certain bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli don’t require a large exposure to get sick; in fact, it may take only 10-100 individual bacteria to get a nasty gastroenteritis. While the majority of dropped food can probably be picked up and eaten safely, I personally wouldn’t recommend it. This is particularly true in areas where there is a lot of foot traffic (shoes pick up lots of fecal remnants on sidewalks) and in food prep areas where uncooked meats and their drippings may come into contact with surfaces. So, unless you’re down to the last hot dog and you’re going to pass out if you don’t eat it, I would recommend throwing it away.
Here’s to a healthy and happy summer! Cheers, The Partner!
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Disclaimer: Advice given under the column “Ask The DIY Doctor” is written by a board certified physician but he is no substitute for your physician! The advice addresses general concerns regarding medial issues and is not intended to replace one-on-one conversations with your family-care physician.