One of my kids’ favorite books is a hilariously ridiculous story we’ve read at least a hundred times since it first appeared at the library two years ago. The main character, a crocodile, begins by professing his love of watermelon, but dissolves into a full-on freak out when he realizes he’s swallowed a seed. Everything turns out okay for this anxious reptile, of course. He belches up the seed on the last page.
I have to admit, my husband and I get a kick out of this book almost as much as our kids do—him because he loves to act out the panic for our kids; me because this fear of swallowing a watermelon seed is something I connect with. As a kid, I fell for the myth that swallowing a seed was dangerous territory. I’m certain it was my older brother who started the whole thing, waiting until my mom was out of earshot before convincing me swallowing the seeds would result in a belly full of growing watermelons.
I learned the truth eventually. Like most adults, I know better than to believe that a watermelon plant could take root in my guts, but that doesn’t mean we’re not all buying into other summertime falsehoods.
Let’s shed some light on some of the most frequently discussed summer health issues so we can all get back to enjoying our time (and snacks) in the sun.
Cookouts and tailgates are some of the best parts of the summer months, but bad information about food safety can turn a great party upside down. Next time you load up your coolers with your favorite grillable meats and a pack of LaCroix, consider whether or not you’re doing enough to protect yourself and your guests from foodborne illness.
During the summer months, we actually see a rise in foodborne illnesses, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). We can blame warmer temperatures and the questionable practices that often come with outdoor food prep for this. Food that should be refrigerated often isn’t, and the people in charge of food prep are less careful about spreading germs with unwashed hands.
“Make sure you keep lots of superchilled ice and gel packs,” advises Julie Joffrion, fitness nutrition specialist and owner of All Inclusion Health. This will ensure that your food stays around the ideal refrigerator temperature, she says, which the U.S. Food and Drug Administration lists as 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
Additionally, the USDA suggests keeping food and drinks in separate coolers because drink coolers are opened more frequently, causing the inside temperature of the cooler to drop. Make sure you are cooking meats to their recommended temperatures and keeping your hands clean by having hand sanitizer nearby when you can’t make it to a sink.
While we’re talking about summer food, are you still waiting to swim for at least 30 minutes after you eat? This is a summer safety guideline that may be nothing more than and old wives’ tale. According to Duke Health, there isn’t scientific evidence to back up the belief it’s dangerous to swim on a full stomach. As this resource points out, it actually makes a lot of sense to fuel yourself before you engage in rigorous exercise.
“Swimming is a very heavy exercise, and you’ll need good protein and carbs in your system before you dive in,” says Joffrion. Her recommendation for fueling your swim? A turkey sandwich on whole wheat bread.
When it comes to summer health tips, skincare and sun protection shine through most—and have the most fiction among the fact. Is it okay to get a base tan? Is sunscreen protecting you from cancer risk, or is it actually a part of the problem?
It’s important to understand that all burning of the skin, or even tanning, is skin damage on some level. The idea of a base tan being safe or protecting you from further burning is completely unfounded, according to Tsippora Shainhouse, MD, FAAD, a skincare specialist.
“If your skin gets tanned, it means that it has been assaulted by UV radiation and damaged,” she explains. “Your skin puts down this ‘base tan’ in an attempt to protect itself from burning and further damage, but it means that it has already been damaged.”
So, sunscreen—we all should wear it, right?
The answer is yes.
But in 2014, multiple publications reported on a study published in the journal Nature—the study found that sunscreen “only provided partial protection” against melanoma, and one study author told the Daily Mail that sunscreen should still be used—just in conjunction with other preventative measures, like “wearing hats and loose fitting clothing, and seeking shade when the sun is at its strongest.”
The Melanoma Research Foundation cites numerous studies which state that sunscreen reduces the incidences (not increases, as some online publications claim) of melanoma. The organization recommends generously applying high-SPF (30 or above) sunscreen year-round, no matter the weather, but they also recommend wearing protective clothing, seeking shade when sun rays are the strongest, and refraining from tanning. To avoid a deficiency, people should consume ample amounts of vitamin D, particularly if they live in areas with low sun exposure.
“Everyone should try to avoid direct UV exposure from tanning beds and during peak sun hours (10 a.m. to 3 p.m.), wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen … which covers both UVA and UVB rays, and wear protective clothing, sunglasses, and wide-brimmed hats when outdoors,” says Shainhouse.
There aren’t really any exceptions to this rule. So if you’re still hanging on to the idea that you can’t get a burn on a cloudy day or you believe you’re protected from the damaging effects of overexposure to the sun because your skin is dark, think again. Everyone needs to wear sunscreen if they’re spending time in the sun. And, when it comes to makeups with added SPF, they’re probably not enough to protect your skin.
Bug (Spray) Bites
Protecting yourself from bug bites is about so much more than avoiding annoying itching and scratching. Some bug bites are associated with a risk of illness or disease.
We know that tick bites, specifically from ticks native to the northeastern region of the United States, are related to an increased risk for Lyme Disease, as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mosquito bites are also associated with risks of disease and infection, according to the Mayo Clinic. In both cases, prevention is the best defense.
Even so, there are fears surrounding the use of bug spray containing DEET. Several years ago, there were reports of DEET exposure causing seizures. Although these reports were true, the National Pesticide Information Center, an organization that works to provide “objective, science-based information about pesticides and pesticide-related topics,” reports that these instances were associated with improper use of the product, including ingestion.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends foregoing insect repellants on children younger than two months.
Not only is it true that DEET is safe when used as directed, it is also the best way to repel ticks while outdoors. Dermatologic surgeon Sejal Shah, MD, says that, ultimately, the risks of a bug bite–related infection or disease are much worse than any potential risks associated with DEET.
Stick with the recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Wear long sleeves and pants while hanging out in heavily wooded areas, and use bug spray containing at least 20 percent DEET (the AAP recommends not using any product with more than 30 percent DEET on children).
When selecting a bug spray, Shah encourages consumers to pay close attention to the ingredients in their bug spray and double check how effective it will be at protecting you from specific insects in your area.
More Than a Fashion Statement
Many people falsely believe that their skin is the only organ in their body that needs a little extra protection from the sun, according to Ryan Parker, doctor of optometry and director of professional services at Essilor.
“[Most] people don’t realize the sun can be as harmful to their eyes as it is to their skin,” he says. “Repeated exposure can increase your chances of developing eyelid skin cancer, cataracts, or experiencing temporary blindness.”
Repeated exposure can add up over time, causing serious damage to your eyes. To protect your eyes from sun damage, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends wearing sunglasses that protect your eyes from UV rays all year long as well as wide-brimmed hats. Avoid looking at the sun directly, and don’t forget to wear your shades on cloudy days, too.
According to Joel Schlessinger, MD, a dermatologic surgeon, many people are unaware or ill-informed about how the sun can damage their scalp. They may be vigilant about keeping their skin protected but forget to cover their heads. He recommends hats as the simplest protection, but also points out that sunscreen powders do exist for use on the scalp.
A healthy summer is a fun summer, so take care of your body during the hottest months of the year. Getting the facts straight on sun protection, bug bite prevention, and food safety is a good first step toward being an informed advocate for your own health.