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Healthy Outlook

Stay Safe in the Summer Sun By Keeping Covered and Drinking Plenty of Water

By Dr. Brenda Reilly

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

If you ever watch children at recess, you've probably noticed that some parts of the schoolyard tend to attract a crowd. One of those places, no matter the playground, is the drinking fountain.

Young kids play hard, get thirsty, and will instinctively guzzle water to endure their daily workout. Older people, meanwhile, often ignore that instinct - at their own peril.

Please remember to drink more water than you think you need, and use appropriate sun protection, especially during the warm summer months.

Heat-related complaints are a seasonal cause for concern at the emergency room where I work. Whenever the weather grows warm, we note an increase in visitors showing obvious signs of dehydration and sunburn. The past two weeks have been no exception.

They arrive feeling dizzy, fatigued and nauseous. Sometimes they don't immediately link their symptoms to the afternoon they just spent hiking or gardening in the summer sun. But they are the warning signs that the body's water tank is running dry.

The old adage that one should drink eight 8-ounce glasses of water each day actually advises less fluid than most people need. Individual needs vary but, as a rule of thumb, adults need at least that much drink and often more.

Our grown-up beverage choices - coffee, tea, soda, alcohol - complicate the situation because, while those drinks all include water, they also contain ingredients that work against proper hydration. Caffeine is a major offender, as it causes the drinker to urinate more frequently.

If you feel lightheaded, faint or achy after spending time outdoors, find a cool, shady place to rest and drink a cup or two of water right away. If you don't feel better within the hour, you may require medical attention.

The symptoms can sneak up, so avoid the hottest part of the day and be sure to carry water when spending time outside in hot weather. A broad-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and copious sun screen should also be mandatory for anyone who hikes, gardens or works outdoors. Sunburns, even light ones, are painful injuries.

Frequent exposure to sunlight also increases the risk of melanoma and other forms of skin cancer. It's not uncommon to find the skin lesions that precede such cancer on the patients we treat for sunburn in the emergency room.

Melanin, the pigment that colors skin, provides some natural sun protection but people of color can sunburn, despite misconceptions about this. Anyone can burn from prolonged exposure, and we all share the same elevated cancer risks if we don't take proper precautions.

Proper precautions start with sunscreen, and make sure yours has an SPF of at least 30. Work it in when you apply it, and give it at least 15 minutes to set. Strenuous activity, particularly swimming, requires frequent reapplication, and kids need it more often than adults.

Also keep in mind that certain medicines, including antibiotics, actually increase susceptibility to sunburn. Talk to your doctor if you have questions about any of your prescriptions.

Sunburn and dehydration are both common in warm weather, but don't take them lightly. Failure to properly prepare for the heat can land you in the emergency room.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at For more health information, go to
About the Author

Dr. Reilly is Medical Director of the Emergency Department at Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez.