Highlight HEALTH Summer Survival Guide

Reading time: 6 – 10 minutes

In the Northern hemisphere, summer officially starts on June 21. This day, also know as the summer solstice, has more daylight than any other day of the year because the sun reaches its greatest distance above the equator.

Summer is a great time to get outdoors and be active. However, along with the fun and sun, there are a number of irritations that we have to content with. Highlight HEALTH looks at how to survive this summer — from sunburn to poison ivy.


Everyone knows the best way to prevent sunburn is to use sunscreen or sunblock, yet it’s the number one compliant of summer. Sunburn is caused by the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. When these rays pass through the skin, they penetrate melanocytes, the skin’s pigment cells. The melanocytes divide rapidly and increase production of melanin (meaning skin pigment), which makes your skin darker [1]. The problem is, the sun’s UV rays also weaken elastin and collagen protein fibers that keep your skin smooth. Additionaly, the sun’s UV rays can mutate skin cell DNA, increasing your risk of skin cancer. More than one million cases of basal cell or squamous cell cancers occur annually. Melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is estimated to occur in ~60,000 people this year [2]. It’s important to protect your skin by applying sunscreen or sunblock. Sunscreens contain chemicals that absorb the sun’s UV rays before they penetrate the skin. Sunblocks literally “block” UV rays completely, reflecting them away from the skin. Make sure to use sunscreen or sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 15 or higher before you go out into the sun. Sweating and swimming will wash it away, so remember to reapply often.

If you do get sunburned, it’s best to act quickly. The CDC recommends aspirin, acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain and headache and reduce fever; drinking water to help rehydrate; and cool baths [3]. You can also use one percent hydrocortizone cream or aloe vera gel on the burned areas to help prevent the redness and swelling that makes sunburns so uncomfortable. If the sunburn is more severe and blisters develop, the CDC recommends lightly bandaging or covering the area with gauze to prevent infection. Don’t break the blisters open, as this will slow the healing process and increase the risk of infection.

Dehydration and Heatstroke

Keeping cool can be a real challenge during the dog days of summer. When your body temperature rises, tiny muscles surrounding sweat glands contract, literally squeezing out perspiration through pores on the skin’s surface. As the sweat evaporates, it removes heat from the skin, helping to keep you cool. The perspiration consists primarily of water and tiny amounts of minerals like potassium and sodium. Sodium helps maintain the water balance in your cells and both minerals keep your muscles and nerves functioning properly.

If you’re out in the sun and only replace your electrolyte-packed body fluids with water, you’re at risk for dehydration and heatstroke. If you are outside and sweating, you should be drinking at least a 50-50 mix of Gatorade and water, which has potassium and sodium. Be sure to drink a minimum of one small liter bottle every hour. Other sports drinks should be fine as long as they contain similar amounts of potassium and sodium.

Symptoms of dehydration can run from thirst and general fatigue to headaches, nausea and confusion. Heatstroke symptoms are also headache and confusion, but include delirium and even hallucinations. Mild dehydration can be treated by rehydration. However, heatstroke is more serious and you should go to the emergency room.

Swimmer’s Ear

When your ear is exposed to excess moisture, water can get trapped in your ear canal. Swimmer’s ear is an itchy and painful infection that can develop. Symptoms can include:

  • Itching of the outer ear
  • Pain or discomfort in or around one ear
  • Extreme pain when you move your outer ear or push on the cartilage bump in front of your ear
  • Feeling of stuffiness in your ear
  • Pus draining from your ear
  • Diminished or muffled hearing
  • Red outer ear with scaly or flakey skin
  • Low-grade fever

One of the easiest ways to help prevent swimmer’s ear is to keep your ear canals dry when you’re not swimming. Tilt your head to one side and tug on your earlobe, pulling it in different directions to help remove water from your ear.

If you do get swimmer’s ear, you’ll need to see your doctor. In the meantime, heat helps; place a warn heating pad over your ear to help reduce the pain. Additionally, over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications may ease your discomfort. Be sure to keep your ear dry while it’s healing. Don’t swim or clean your ears until the infection clears up.

Mosquito Bites

Mosquitoes are nocturnal, meaning they typically come out at dawn and dusk. During the day, mosquitoes take refuge from the heat and wait for evening. Be sure to wear lightweight, light-colored and loose-fitting clothing (to stay comfortable) that covers as much skin as possible. Although insect repellents that contain DEET have been shown to provide prolonged complete protection from mosquito bites [4], DEET-based repellents aren’t just hazardous to mosquitos. DEET is a registered pesticide and studies in rats suggest that DEET exposure induces significant neurobehavioral deficits and neuronal degeneration in the brain [5-7].

If you’ve already been bitten, don’t scratch. Scratching makes the bite swell and itch even more. Instead, take an antihistamine (Benadryl) and apply one percent hydrocortisone cream or calamine lotion to the bites. If the area still itches, a cold compress or an ice pack may provide some relief.

Poison Ivy

Remember, “Leaves of three, let them be”. Poison ivy is a three-leafed plant, usually with a little yellow and purple, and it tends to be anywhere with shrubbery, hiding out amongst other plants. When hiking through the woods, it’s best to stay out of shrub areas and wear high socks or boots to protect yourself. However, even if you are covered, you can still get poison ivy. It’s easy to transfer oil from the plant to your clothes to other parts of your body. If you are exposed to poison ivy, avoid touching the exposed area. Wash the exposed skin with soap and water immediately to remove the allergen in the plant’s oil. If you wash quickly enough after exposure, you may avoid a rash. Make sure you wash the clothes you were wearing.

A poison ivy rash normally appears 24-36 hours after exposure, and may not show for up to 7-10 days. Use hydrocortizone cream or calamine lotion to control the rash. You should also take an antihistamine (Claritin or Benedryl). If the swelling and itching get worse, you’ll need to see a doctor for topical or oral steroids.


  1. Duval et al. Distinct melanogenic response of human melanocytes in mono-culture, in co-culture with keratinocytes and in reconstructed epidermis, to UV exposure. Pigment Cell Res. 2001 Oct;14(5):348-55.
    View abstract
  2. Cancer Facts & Figures 2007. American Cancer Society. Atlanta, Ga. 2007.
  3. Health Information for for International Travel 2005-2006 Online Edition. Chapter 6 – Non-Infectious Risks During Travel. CDC, Kozarsky, Arguin and Navin. 2005 May 13.
  4. Fradin MS and Day JF. Comparative efficacy of insect repellents against mosquito bites. N Engl J Med. 2002 Jul 4;347(1):13-8.
    View abstract
  5. Abdel-Rahman et al. Neurological deficits induced by malathion, DEET, and permethrin, alone or in combination in adult rats. J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2004 Feb 27;67(4):331-56.
    View abstract
  6. Abou-Donia et al. Co-exposure to pyridostigmine bromide, DEET, and/or permethrin causes sensorimotor deficit and alterations in brain acetylcholinesterase activity. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 2004 Feb;77(2):253-62.
    View abstract
  7. Abou-Donia et al. Locomotor and sensorimotor performance deficit in rats following exposure to pyridostigmine bromide, DEET, and permethrin, alone and in combination. Toxicol Sci. 2001 Apr;60(2):305-14.
    View abstract
About the Author

Walter Jessen is a senior writer for Highlight HEALTH Media.