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Top 5 Summer Illnesses: Your Guide to Avoiding the Doctor's Office This Season

Published May 27, 2014 8:47 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Summer is here. It's the season for camping, hiking, swimming - and a whole host of ailments that land people in the doctor's office during the year's hottest months.What are the most common summer problems that physicians see in their exam rooms? We surveyed several doctors from University of Utah Health Care who weighed in on what frequently brings patients in for a visit as the season kicks off.1. SunburnMost people who call Utah home know that the state's pounding sun makes it vital to wear sunscreen before enjoying the outdoors in the summer. Yet every year, hundreds of people end up seeing a health care provider because of a vicious sunburn or overlooking a basic but important sunscreen fact: You need to reapply it.)According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen is most effective when applied 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors. Even if you are not swimming or perspiring, sunscreen becomes diluted on the skin over time and should be reapplied every two hours to ensure maximum coverage. Using sunscreen frequently is more than simply avoiding a nasty sunburn: Utah has among the highest rates of melanoma in the nation and this form of skin cancer is growing at a faster rate than other cancers, said Glen Bowen, M.D., a dermatologist specializing in the diagnosis and treatment of skin cancer at the University of Utah's Huntsman Cancer Institute. "Utah's high rate of skin cancer is due to a combination of factors: the state's high altitude where there is less ozone filtration of ultraviolet light, a southern latitude (Salt Lake City is approximately the same latitude as Rome, Italy), and a population comprised of a high percentage of Caucasians. The people who were genetically built to live in Utah were the Paiute Indians who have a high amount of pigment in their skin that protects them from ultraviolet light," he said. Precautionary measures include wearing sunscreen —and also covering up with clothes, he noted. While wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt and wide brimmed hat could be tricky at a water park, visiting that park in the morning or early evening —times when the sun is not at its peak —would help curb sun exposure to some degree.As for sunscreen, you can judge the protectiveness of a sunscreen against UVB rays according to its sun protection factor (SPF). For instance, if your skin usually burns after 10 minutes, a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 extends this to 2.5 hours (10 minutes multiplied by the "15" protection factor = 150 minutes). The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that everyone should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 and to look for sunscreens that block both UVA and UVB radiation. Think you're ready to hit the beach now? First, take our sun quiz to make sure you've got your info straight so sun damage doesn't interrupt your summer fun. http://healthcare.utah.edu/healthlibrary/related/doc.php?type=40&id=SummerSunQuiz2. CryptoCryptosporidiosis may not necessarily bring as many people to the doctor's office in the summer compared to a more common sprained ankle from a skateboard fall, but the condition is a health issue important to highlight every year as outdoor swim season gets underway.More commonly referred to as "crypto," the condition is a diarrheal infection caused by a parasite acquired after drinking or swallowing food or water contaminated with feces, including water swallowed while swimming —which is why outbreaks make headlines in the summer, especially when they happen at public outdoor swimming pools.Utah's worst summer for crypto in recent years came in 2007, when at least 5,700 people were sickened after contracting crypto from swimming pools, according to data from the Utah Department of Health.The parasite that causes crypto is protected by an outer shell that allows it to survive for long periods of time outside the body. That ability makes the parasite very resistant to chlorine disinfection. People who contract crypto generally see symptoms including diarrhea, vomiting, weight loss, stomach cramps and fever —although some infected people may not develop any symptoms. If symptoms do develop, they often last approximately two weeks and sometimes longer. However, whether or not you have symptoms, the parasite is passed in the stool for up to two months, posing a risk of spreading the infection to others."Cryptosporidium typically causes self-limited diarrhea that may also be accompanied with feeling sick, having loss of appetite, abdominal cramping and fever. However, people that are immunosuppressed, like patient with HIV/AIDS may get a more serious illness. Children are also more susceptible to getting a more serious illness," said Brian Ely, who practices family medicine at the University of Utah's South Jordan Health Center.The best treatment for crypto is prevention, said Ely.Family physicians and state health departments both recommend simple precautions: Don't swim when you have diarrhea, shower with soap before you start swimming and take bathroom breaks every 60 minutes (and remind your kids to do the same!).Most pools require children three and under to use a swim diaper and plastic pants (available at most big box retailers) before they enter a public pool, so arrive prepared.3. Tick bitesWith Utah's ample choices for camping and hiking, there are plenty of opportunities for ticks to latch on to unsuspecting people enjoying the outdoors. Kids at summer camps in particular can fall victim to pesky insects that may leave them with a skin infection.In rare cases, Lyme disease may occur as a result of ticks. The disease is a bacterial infection that most often targets the skin, joints, brain, and heart, although any part of the body can be affected.Lyme disease is an infection caused by bacteria transmitted through tick bites. Often, the first symptom is a flat, round, reddish rash at the sight of the bite that appears three to 30 days after the tick bite. The rash may have a pale center. It also may resemble a "bull's eye." The rash may get better after several days. Lyme disease is more commonly associated with deer ticks that live in other parts of the country, including the east coast and midwest. Utah Department of Health data shows there are generally only a handful of cases in Utah every year. Tick bites in general can be painful if not treated. If you get a tick buried in your skin, it's possible to get a skin infection, said Scott Youngquist, M.D., an emergency medicine physician at University of Utah Health Care. But while tick bites are common, their escalation into serious health problems is less so, he said."The likelihood that you're going to get a significant disease from a tick in Utah is fairly low," said Youngquist. "To treat a tick bite, I recommend putting petroleum jelly on the skin as a means to force the tick out. Tweezers can also be used to remove a tick if it has gotten under the skin. I would treat ticks like you would treat a splinter."The biggest prevention measure to prevent ticks from causing illness is knowing how to spot and remove them from clothing, according to health advocates. The non-profit Tick-Borne Disease Alliance (TBDA) group also issues tips for parents before sending their children to summer camps where ticks may be a factor. The alliance encourages parents to make sure the kids have tick repellant. Packing suitcases with light-colored clothing that makes it easier to spot ticks when kids are playing outside, as well as spraying outdoor clothes and shoes should be sprayed with permethrin (insect repellent).If kids are at day camp and come home at night after a day outside, separate their clothes in a hamper stored in a mud room or garage so ticks can't imbed themselves in other parts of the house. Once the dirty clothes are washed and dried, there is a good chance the ticks will be killed after 20 to 30 minutes in a dryer set on high heat.And most importantly, remember to carefully check clothes and hair anytime after time spent in an area where ticks also reside.4. Food PoisoningFrom simple backyard barbecues to meals scarfed down while waiting on the curb for Utah's famous Pioneer Day parade to star, there's something special about the taste of summer. But a summer picnic can quickly turn into an event to forget if foods like potato salad with mayonnaise are left outside too long — or that meat for the grill ends up cooked for a shorter time than it should have been.Food borne illness reaches its peak during the summer months, a trend the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service attributes to the fact that bacteria grows faster in warmer temperatures and because outside activities increase.Most food-borne illnesses are caused by eating food containing certain types of bacteria or viruses. After a person has eaten these foods, the microorganisms continue to grow in the digestive tract, causing an infection. Foods can also cause illness if they contain a toxin or poison produced by bacteria growing in food."Outdoor events like picnics can present problems if food isn't prepared or stored properly," said Russell Vinik, M.D., an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Utah. "It can be easy to lose track of time when everyone is busy socializing at these events, and all of a sudden it's likely some of the food brought to a potluck has been left out too long. It's important to make sure meats are fully cooked and food that easily spoils is kept in a refrigerator. It's also important to use a clean utensil when taking meat off the grill, otherwise, any bacteria from the raw meat can end up on your dinner plate. Those simple measures can be the difference between contracting a case of food poisoning."Cases of food poisoning mimic gastroenteritis, and many people with mild cases of food poisoning think they have the "stomach flu." However, the onset of symptoms is usually very sudden and abrupt, often within hours of eating the contaminated food. Symptoms include abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting, headache, fever and gas.Most mild cases of food poisoning are often treated as gastroenteritis, with fluid replacement and control of nausea and vomiting being the primary focus. Think you're set to avoid food poisoning this summer? Take our quiz to make sure before your break out the grill and cole slaw recipe: http://healthcare.utah.edu/healthlibrary/related/doc.php?type=40&id=ThoughtQuiz5. Swimmer's EarWith almost daily trips to the pool to find relief from the scorching sun, it's no surprise that many children encounter a common — and painful — problem in the summer from playing in the water: Swimmer's Ear.Formally known as Otitis externa, Swimmer's Ear is an inflammation of the external ear canal caused by fungi or bacteria that becomes trapped in the ear canal as a result of swimming. Symptoms include redness of the outer ear, itching in the ear, pain in the ear when touching or wiggling the ear lobe, ear drainage, puffy gland in the neck, a swollen ear canal, muffled hearing or a plugged-up feeling in the ear. Many of these symptoms are also common to other conditions, so a trip to the family doctor or pediatrician can help determine whether Swimmer's Ear is the culprit for ear pain. A physician may use an otoscope, a lighted instrument that helps to examine the ear and to aid in the diagnosis of ear disorders.Swimmer's Ear generally clears up within seven to 10 days and is treated with antibiotic ear drops, corticosteroid ear drops (which help decrease the swelling) and simply keeping the ear dry for awhile until the infection clears out.For some people, taking small steps before jumping into the pool can help prevent the condition, said Ely, of the South Jordan Health Center."For anyone that has repeated outer ear infections (Swimmer's Ear) attempts can be made to prevent future infections. These include not sticking thinks in your ears or cleaning inside your ears and using well-fitted ear plugs designed to prevent water from entering the ear when participating in water sports," said Ely. "It can also be helpful to dry the ears after exposure to water by shaking the ear dry after swimming or even blow drying the ear with low heat."