By Orlando F. Mills, MD, MPH
When the weather is warm and the skies are blue, road trips and outdoor fun are almost always on the agenda. But health risks abound, especially during the summer. Here are a few uncommon ways that a fun time can be interrupted by a medical issue.
1. High-Altitude Sickness – Hiking is a popular pastime during the warmer months. While New Jersey’s mountains aren’t high enough to spark an unpleasant reaction to the altitude, many popular hiking destinations, like the Rocky Mountains, are. You may begin to feel the effects of decreased oxygen in the atmosphere at altitudes over 5,000 feet above sea level, with the condition most commonly felt by those in altitudes of 8,000 to 10,000 feet above sea level. Symptoms include dizziness, headache, fatigue, shortness of breath, and, in extreme cases, facial or leg swelling or congestive heart failure.
Preventive care can help prevent the effects of decreased oxygen. If you’re planning a trip to a mountainous area, ask your doctor to prescribe Diamox, a diuretic and carbonic anhydrase inhibitor that can prevent illness. The medication works best when taken one day before travel and several days after. If you experience altitude sickness, try to rest while your body becomes more accustomed to the altitude. If symptoms persist, particularly if you have other chronic medical conditions, seek medical attention.
2. Swimming Solo – While taking a dip in the ocean after the beach has cleared out and the lifeguards have packed up may sound heavenly, it’s risky to swim alone. Even mild to moderate rip currents can pull you out to sea. To stay out of harm’s way, only swim at the beach when a lifeguard is on duty. The chance of drowning at a beach while a lifeguard is working is 1 in 18 million, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association. Additionally, learn how to spot a rip current and check water conditions before going in. And, the old adage is true: eating a heavy meal before swimming can cause painful stomach cramps, so plan accordingly.
3. Beach Chair Bruises – That brightly colored cooler chair may be comfortable, but if you’re not careful, you may injure your fingers. Be sure to read the chair’s operating instructions before using and take care to keep your fingers and hands away from the hinges when opening or closing the chair. Also, be sure to place your chair on even ground to prevent a tumble.
4. Road Trip Tightness – Summer traffic can be brutal. If you’re planning a lengthy road trip, be sure to take a break every one and a half to two hours to stretch your back, move your legs and hips, and refocus your mind. You also may want to invest in a lumbar support pillow or back roll for the car to relieve pressure on the disks in your spine.
5. Eye Illnesses – You know that it’s important to protect your skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays but it’s equally important to protect your eyes. UV rays from the sun can cause melanoma of the eye, a form of cancer. It’s important to protect your eyes, especially on sunny days when the sun’s light can reflect off the sand, magnifying its impact. Protect your retinas by wearing sunglasses and a hat and staying under an umbrella when possible.
6. Menacing Mice – You’ve probably heard that ticks transmit Lyme disease after contracting the Lyme bacteria from deer, but did you know that the white-footed mouse also is a source? Knowing the symptoms of Lyme disease is important, especially in this part of the state. In fact, in 2017, Monmouth County ranked second in the state in number of new cases of Lyme disease reported. If you’ve been in wooded areas, check your skin for small deer ticks and see your doctor if you experience pain, aches or swelling in your joints after finding a tick on your skin. It’s important to note that symptoms can take weeks or even months to develop. If you suspect that you’ve been bitten by a deer tick, call your doctor, who may administer a western blot test, a type of blood test. It’s difficult to know if someone has Lyme disease just based on symptoms alone, so testing is a crucial step in diagnosing the condition. Left untreated, it can cause myocarditis, a type of inflammation of the heart, or nervous system inflammation.
7. Halting Hydration – Water, water everywhere … in the ocean, in the pool, in our drinks, but it’s not uncommon to become dehydrated in the summer, when high temperatures and prolonged sun exposure can sap our bodies of the water it needs to function properly. To prevent dehydration, be sure to drink at least two additional 8-ounce glasses of water each day. Stomach illnesses like vomiting or diarrhea also may cause dehydration. The signs that your body hasn’t had enough water include weakness, dry mouth, light headedness, dizziness and confusion. If you think you may be dehydrated, call your primary care physician.
A little prevention goes a long way. Take the steps necessary to ensure that you and your family have a safe—and active—summer.
Dr. Orlando Mills, MD, MPH, is a board-certified family practice physician on staff at CentraState Medical Center. He can be reached by calling 866-CENTRA7.