One of the worst upper respiratory infections I’ve ever had occurred during the summer. I had been in Atlantic City for a couple of days, and just a day or two after returning home, I began to feel the tell-tale symptoms: sore throat, body aches, fever. This cold got better, then got worse, and the after-effects–cough and post-nasal drip in particular, seemed to linger for about a month. It was an awful way to spend a summer. Fortunately, catching a summer cold is relatively rare. People are less cooped-up indoors in the summer, making the sharing of germs harder. And children are not in school during the summer months, making them less prone to bring home the germs they pick up during the school year from classmates.
But there are other summertime health issues, brought on by the particular types of weather most commonly experienced during these warm months. Summer heat and humidity can cause heat rash or hives, and can often make breathing more difficult for those with existing cardiovascular concerns. Increased sweating caused by summer heat can bring on dehydration. Summer storms, particularly when people have outdoor plans, carry with them the dangers associated with lightning strikes. Let’s examine each of these in more depth, and look at some helpful ways to avoid the risks associated with them.
Many people think of heat rash as a condition that only affects children. Babies are often afflicted by itchy, painful skin on their neck and chest. But adults exposed to high heat and humidity can develop similar welts, bumps, and painful itchy skin as well. Caused by blocked sweat ducts and sweat trapped under the skin, this condition is typically easy to clear by getting out of the heat, and into cooler clothing or applying cool compresses or lotion to the skin. Similarly, high heat, humidity, and excessive sweating can cause hives—itchy, painful, raised bumps on the skin. Again, cool loose clothing and an antihistamine, if needed, usually provide relief. From a weather perspective, 11am to 3pm tends to be the hottest part of the day, and humidity is usually at its highest level in the morning, so limiting outdoor activities during these periods is advisable, particularly on hotter days.
Summertime heat and humidity also can also worsen breathing difficulties, particularly for those living with asthma or COPD. Extreme levels of heat and humidity can cause problems because high heat causes the body to work harder to cool itself, which taxes the heart and lungs. High heat also causes ground level air pollution to be worse, especially ozone levels. The warmer months also tend to be the worst months for allergens that affect breathing such as grass pollen, and ragweed. Again, staying indoors during the hottest and most humid parts of the day, and running the air conditioning to keep temperatures and humidity at comfortable levels are among the steps one can take to avoid these issues. Visiting websites such as www.pollen.com or www.airnow.gov can help you keep up with the forecasted levels of pollen and pollution in your area.
Obviously, being out in the summer heat and humidity causes one to sweat. This is the natural way that our bodies seek to regulate our body temperatures. Sweating allows for evaporative cooling to occur. Evaporation takes heat, so as a result the skin cools slightly. But in extreme heat, this process does not work fast enough to keep us cool, and when the humidity is high, it makes this process less efficient, as the moisture in the air makes evaporation less likely. But all that sweating takes another toll on our bodies–the potential of dehydration. It is essential to replace lost fluids in order to keep the normal biological processes of the body running. Without enough fluid, the loss of sodium and potassium in the body can be potentially very dangerous. So, when spending time outdoors in the heat and humidity, drinking water or sports drinks helps avoid the danger of dehydration.
Summer thunderstorms are a common occurrence. Heat and humidity often provide the convection needed to allow pop-up storms to flare up. And passing cold fronts often provide the lift needed to cause a strong line of storms to develop. While most people instinctively know from an early age to avoid the lightning associated with these storms, many people discount the danger. While lightning strikes are only lethal in about 10% of cases, nearly 2000 people are killed each year by lightning. And even surviving a lightning strike can cause severe and long lasting health problems. The fact is, when you are close enough to a thunderstorm to hear the lightning, you are close enough to be struck by that lightning, as lightning bolts can travel as far as 10 miles from a storm. So, when you hear thunder, go inside. But just being indoors is not enough sometimes. A recent story about a man struck by lightning while in his office demonstrates that it is also important to keep away from electrical appliance, outlets, corded phones, and even showers or baths during thunderstorms. A full list of lightning safety tips can be found on the National Weather Service website.
Summer is a time of outdoor recreation and activity. But it can also be a time of weather-related health dangers. Knowing about these dangers and how to avoid them can keep you healthy and safe.