Under the Sun: Heat and Sun Safety Tips

Written by Paul Burton, REMSA

I’m in the business of safety. I feel like that’s the start of some lame (or awesome) dad joke, but for me, I mean it. As the Director of Emergency Medical Services for REMSA, I really am in the business of safety. 

Learning to find the right balance between family fun and keeping everyone well and healthy – especially during the make-every-moment-count days of summer — can be a tall order for any dad. My family has fantastic warm-weather memories of backyard barbecues, visits to Bodega Bay and relaxing on Hawaii’s sun-kissed beaches. Thankfully, our summertime emergencies have been limited to forgetting the cooler. While it may be fun to participate in outdoor activities with family and friends, it is essential that everyone understands the risks the sun presents. 

Whether you are going to the beach, playing in the park or spending time in your backyard, protecting your skin from the sun is important not just for the long-term health of your body’s largest organ (your skin!) but knowing the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke can prevent true emergencies from happening. 

Sun safety includes understanding the dangers of sun exposure, sun burns and heat-related illnesses. From May to September 2018, REMSA responded to 115 calls in Washoe County for heat-related illnesses. Just over nine percent of those calls were for pediatric patients. With 2019 on track to be one of the five hottest years on record (so says the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), we can only anticipate that those figures will increase. Follow these sun safety tips to keep your family feeling fresh, well and happy through those dog days of summer. 

Sun Safety Basics

Wear sunscreen, drink plenty of water and take multiple shade breaks. Sure, we all know the basics yet according to the Centers for Disease Control, skin cancer remains the number one cancer in the United States and last year, 685 people died of extreme heat. So, when it comes to protecting your kid’s skin, keep these tips in mind. 

7 Key Tips for Staying Safe in the Sun

  1. Keep infants under six months old out of direct sunlight
  2. Wear broad spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30
  3. Teens and adults needs about a shot-glass size (one ounce) of sunscreen to cover their body; adjust accordingly for smaller children
  4. Wear a hat, sunglasses and protective clothing like loose, light-colored cotton shirts and pants
  5. Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours or after significant sweating, swimming or toweling off
  6. Seek shade, especially during midday hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during the summer months)
  7. Stay hydrated. For adults, you can divide your body weight in half and that’s roughly the number of ounces of water you should drink on a daily basis. To make hydration fun for children, consider fruit that has high-water content like watermelon or frozen fruit pops. For infants, you can increase formula or breast milk intake.

Too Much Sun: Signs and Symptoms of Heat-Related Illness

Fun in the sun can turn serious and scary if you don’t spot the signs of heat-related illness quickly. Children, as well as the elderly and people with mental illnesses and chronic diseases, are at the highest risk for developing a heat-related illness. Heat-related symptoms can progress from heat cramps to heat exhaustion to heat stroke. 

Here are some things to look out for:

Heat Cramps

Heat cramps include muscle cramping – involuntary muscle spasms that usually occur during heavy exercise in hot environments. They are more intense and prolonged than regular cramps and usually occur in calves, arms and in the abdominal wall and back. Treatment includes resting and cooling off, gentle stretching or massage and drinking an electrolyte-containing sports drink.

Heat Exhaustion

Heat exhaustion includes more significant cramping, fatigue, headache, nausea or vomiting, and dizziness or fainting. Skin may be cool and moist but look for a fast and weak pulse, and rapid and shallow breathing. In most cases, you can treat this level of illness yourself by having the person rest in a cool place, laying on their back with their legs elevated higher than the heart. Next, drink cool fluids – water and sports drinks only. Loosen any restrictive clothing and take a cool shower or put towels soaked in cool water directly on the skin. If symptoms don’t subside within one hour, seek prompt medical attention.

Heatstroke

The most serious heat-related illness is heatstroke, which is a life-threatening condition. Left untreated, it can damage the brain, heart, kidneys and muscles. Watch for these signs and symptoms: a body temperature greater than 103 degrees, red hot and dry skin (if the person has stopped sweating, that’s a problem), throbbing headache, dizziness, nausea, rapid breathing, confusion and unconsciousness. If any of these signs or symptoms are present, this is a medical emergency. Dial 9-1-1 and take immediate action to cool off including spraying them with a hose, submerging them in a tub of cool water, fanning and misting, or applying ice packs on the head, neck, armpits and groin.

Treating Sunburn and Preventing Future Damage

Despite your best efforts, maybe you or the kids got a bit too much sun or there are patches of pink skin where the sunblock application was missed. The first thing you should do is get out of the sun. Once you are in a shaded area, take a cool or lukewarm shower. Apply an aloe or soy lotion or hydrocortisone cream. Do NOT apply petroleum jelly or other ointments as it may trap heat near the skin causing further discomfort. Consider taking Aspirin or Ibuprofen to reduce any swelling or pain. Always be sure to keep the sunburn covered if you have to be out in the sun again. If your sunburn blisters, allow the blisters to heal and do not pop them since their purpose is to heal and protect your skin from infection.

As a safety precaution, dazzle your family with some dad-is-always-prepared magic and download the American Red Cross First Aid app which has information about treating emergencies from things like bleeding to heatstroke to strains and sprains.

Let the summer fun begin!

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