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Summer health scares

gunnell-aug12-healthIt may be a time that many people enjoy, but the safety concerns that crop up when the sun is shining should be taken seriously. Make sure you’re prepared this year.

Whether you’re staying at home or jetting abroad on holiday, most people think of summer as a healthier, happier, more carefree time of year. Days are longer, you’re more likely to enjoy yourself outside and there are plenty of chances for garden parties, festivals and BBQs. But aside from its feel-good factor, the sun can actually mask some pressing health concerns. Here, we look at common questions you might be asking when temperatures rise…

  1. Why do I get more food poisoning in the summer?
    The meat’s been marinated, the buns are buttered, and the salad’s been shaken. But before you throw open the doors for your BBQ, have you remembered to safeguard against food poisoning? Summer’s the high season for tummy bugs caused by al fresco feasts – cases of food poisoning actually double because we eat outdoors so much more.

    Undercooked burgers are one of the main culprits, because it’s only by cooking meat until it’s piping hot that you kill off salmonella, E.coli and campylobacter, the most common germs that bring on food poisoning.

    But there are other reasons, too. Food’s more likely to be left hanging around while you’re getting ready – in the kitchen or outside. And heat doesn’t help this.

    When a party’s in full swing, it’s easy to let normal procedures slip – particularly if alcohol is flowing. ‘All the simple hygiene steps you know you ought to take if you’re handling food for other people, such as washing your hands frequently, can fall by the wayside’, says GP and travel health expert, Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth. ‘Especially if there are people helping out who may not know the kitchen, or you’re cooking for more people than usual. You’re also taking a risk if you mix partially-cooked or non-cooked meat with other foods,’ she points out. ‘For example, defrosting chicken on a surface you then cut the bread on, or letting raw chicken touch burger buns or vegetables.’

  2. Is insect repellent spray harmful?
    That irritating buzz of a mosquito – it’s a noise guaranteed to ruin your evening, whether you’re home or abroad on holiday. You can try to ward off pesky bugs with a natural remedy containing oil of lemon eucalyptus, but it won’t last as long as the king of repellents – a substance containing the man-made yellow liquid, DEET. DEET, which is short for diethyltoluamide, certainly works – but is it safe? ‘Just like anything you put on your skin, read the instructions,’ says Dr Rob Hicks.
  3. How do I know if I’m drinking enough fluid?
    Human bodies are made up of more than half water, and fluid plays a vital role in banishing waste products, regulating body temperature and replacing what you lose by breathing and sweating – especially during the hot, humid, summer months. You get dehydrated if your body is losing more liquids than it’s taking in. You’ll feel thirsty, light-headed or dizzy, may have a headache, and feel tired or sick. Health experts recommend you should get through between 1.5-2.5 litres a day (that works out to around six to eight glasses).

    When it’s hot, the amount you sweat increases so you should drink more than you normally would.  ‘The best way to know if you’re drinking enough fluid is to monitor your urine output’, says Jane. ‘Aim to have at least three good volume urinations in 24 hours, and the urine should be a light colour.’

  4. If I wear a higher SPF suncream, can I stay out in the sun for longer?
    To maximise the amount of time you can spend in the sun, it might be tempting to stock up on the highest sun protection factor (SPF) possible. But, as Dr Rob warns, suncream doesn’t work like that:  ‘If you use an SPF 30 cream, that doesn’t make it doubly effective as an SPF 15. Rather than focus on the amount of SPF, it’s better to use a sunblock, and use it properly. The key is to apply it regularly – every few hours when you’re outside.’
  5. Where is it safe to swim outdoors?
    Indoor swimming pools are just the job when it’s cold and wet outside, but if summer temperatures rise enough then nothing beats a dip al fresco. ‘When you’re swimming outside, safety should be your number one priority’, says Rob. ‘Different coloured flags on beaches are put out for a reason – you must follow their instruction at all times.’

    ‘While a river might seem an inviting place to cool off on a hot day, even the most serene spot could have an undercurrent and rocks you can trap your foot in. No matter where your chosen area of water, whether that’s the sea, river or even a paddling pool in your back garden, treat it with respect.’ Naturally, rivers and seas aren’t chlorinated to remove germs so beware waterborne nasties. ‘Wherever you are, try not to swallow water. And if you swim underwater, use goggles,’ says Dr Rob.

  6. Can I get sunburnt eyes?
    When it comes to stepping out in the sun, the part of your body you’re most aware you need to protect is your skin. But your eyes are vulnerable, too. They’re highly sensitive to ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun, and can also get sunburnt. A sign of this is if they feel gritty, sore or painful. Shade behind sunglasses with good lenses. ‘The eye itself can get sore with excessive sun exposure, especially if the sun’s bright rays are reflected off sand or sparkling water – such as a swimming pool’, says Jane.
  7. Why is drinking in the sun such a bad idea?
    Research by the alcohol charity, Drinkaware (, carried out in 2009 showed that people drink more in the summer rather than any other time of the year. Blame the BBQs on long evenings or sociable afternoons spent in pub beer gardens – there’s something about a hot day and a cool drink that you can’t resist. But alcohol dehydrates you, because it causes the body to make more urine. And if the sun’s rays are beating down on you, this dehydration will get worse. So, if you’re enjoying a tipple or two, make sure you drink plenty of water with it – health experts say that alternating alcohol with a soft drink option is best.
  8. Why do
    I find it harder to sleep at night when it’s hot? It’s not hard to love long sunny days, but trying to get some shut-eye when it’s sweaty and clammy is more of a challenge. Sticky nights mean that even the easiest sleeper might be left tossing and turning to reach the land of nod due to the heat. One reason you may find it harder to sleep on a hot night is because your body takes longer to cool down. Usually, to fall asleep, your body temperature needs to drop almost by a degree. To help keep your bedroom a more comfortable temperature, close the curtains during the day. Also, aim to get your exercise fix in the morning.

Thanks to: dr jane wilson-howarth, author of the essential guide to travel health (£8.99, Cadogan/new holland), and dr rob hicks, author of old fashioned remedies: from arsenic to gin (£14.99, remember when), and follow on twitter – @drrobhicks


This article was first published in at home with Sally Gunnell in August 2012. [Read the digital edition here]


Image: Shutterstock

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