Communications: Patient Education

Patient Education: Respecting the Power of the Sun

Monday, June 23, 2008  
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As the summer sun heats up, so do Minnesotan’s outdoor plans. Enjoying a day at the pool or an afternoon at the lake can be fun, but it also puts you and your family in the direct path of the sun’s harmful rays.

"The best way to prevent skin damage and skin cancer is to avoid exposure to the sun,” said Dr. Glenn Nemec, a family physician with Monticello Clinic. "Since it’s not realistic to stay inside all summer, Minnesotans need to be prepared by using plenty of sunscreen before they head out.”

Dr. Nemec says a common mistake people make is not using enough protection. First, sunscreen needs to be put on a half an hour before going outside. Second, it needs to be reapplied every two to three hours or sooner if a person has been in the water. If used properly, the average family should be going through several bottles of sunscreen a month. Third, any sunscreen purchased should protect against both UVB and UVA rays.

The sun protection factor or SPF is also important because the number rating tells a person how much longer they can stay in the sun without getting burned. Minimally, you should use a sunscreen with an SPF of 15. If you normally burn after 20 minutes in the sun and you put on a sunscreen with a SPF of 15, this will give you 15 times the protection. If you have fair skin and light-colored hair, you will likely burn easier, and should use a product with a SPF of 30 or higher. You will also burn quicker if you are by water or sand because these elements can make the sun’s rays even more intense.

"Since a person can burn just as easily in their backyard as they can at the beach we need to remind people that sunscreen is not just something you put on for a special outing,” Nemec said. "It should be a daily habit, like eating breakfast and brushing your teeth.”

Finally, just because the sun isn't out, doesn't mean you shouldn't spray on some protection. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, up to 80 percent of UV rays can penetrate clouds so sunscreen is still a necessity on overcast days.

Along with sunscreen, there are other precautions you can take to reduce your sun exposure. Sunglasses will protect your eyes from the dangerous UV rays, while a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing work to protect other parts of your body.

While preventing sunburn will be the major concern of many as they venture outdoors in the summer, people should also be aware of other heat-related diseases that can be life threatening if left untreated.

"Dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke can happen when a person is overexposed to the sun," said Dr. Nemec. "The best thing you can do is drink lots of water, as well as take frequent breaks from any activities if you start to feel too hot.”

Heat exhaustion happens when the body can't cool itself fast enough. It can come on suddenly and make a person feel overheated, tired and weak. Other signs of heat exhaustion include cool, moist, pale flushed or red skin, heavy sweating, headache, dizziness, and nausea or vomiting. If not treated, heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke which can cause a person to stop sweating. This allows the body temperature to rise to dangerous levels. Brain damage and even death can occur if the person is not cooled off quickly.

"There is nothing better than being outside with family and friends,” Dr. Nemec said. "As long as we respect the power of the sun and protect ourselves by making wise choices, there is no reason we can't enjoy it safely.

The Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians is a professional association of approximately 3,000 family physicians, family medicine residents and medical students organized to assist family physicians in providing quality medical care in Minnesota. The MAFP is the largest medical specialty organization in Minnesota and is a state chapter of the American Academy of Family Physicians, one of the largest national medical organizations in the United States with more than 103,000 members.

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