Staying Safe In The Summer Sun

By Alaina Stratton, Senior News Contributing Editor

Older adults are at greater risk than others for illnesses caused by exposure to the sun and heat - but these risks don’t have to put a damper on summer fun. By adjusting routines and being prepared, you can protect yourself without compromising on recreation or adventure.

Being outside can provide many health benefits, from physical activity to fresh air and vitamin D from the sun’s rays. However the sun can also be quite harmful for people of all ages. The immediate danger is the risk of sunburn. Repeated sun damage compromises cells and blood vessels in the skin, weakening and causing it to look dry, wrinkled, discolored, and leathery.

Sun damage can also lead to a much more serious health risk: skin cancer, which is now the most common cancer in adults, according to the Cleveland Clinic.

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells that occurs when DNA damage to skin cells triggers mutations, or genetic defects, that lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors.
The Skin Cancer Foundation reports the following sobering statistics as well. First, the odds of developing skin cancer rise as we age: between 40 and 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will have at least one skin cancer. Second, over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined. And third, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime.

It’s never too late, however, to prevent further skin damage and lower the risk of cancer. Adults can implement easy protective measures to protect skin from sun this summer.

1. The most hazardous hours for UV exposure are 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. During these hours, adults should stay indoors or modify their outdoor activity by staying in the shade as much as possible, wearing clothing that covers arms and legs, wearing a hat that will shade the face, head, ears and neck. Protective clothing should be worn even in the shade. Clothing has a SPF of less than 15, according to the CDC, but clothes made of tightly woven fabrics or in darker colors provide better coverage than others.  

2. Regardless of time of day or amount of sun, use sunscreen with a SPF of 15 or higher with UVA and UVB protection. Sunscreen should be worn even on overcast days or when in the shade. Don’t forget to re-apply often, especially after sweating or swimming.

3. Protect the eyes by wearing sunglasses that wrap around and block both UVA and UVB rays. Too much sun exposure can irritate eyes and cause further damage. Wearing sunglasses can protect eyes from UV rays, reduce the risk of cataracts and preserve vision.

Over-exposure to the sun and heat can also lead to heat-related illnesses such as cramps, exhaustion, and stroke. These illnesses can occur when physical activity, in combination with high temperatures or humidity, cause the body’s core temperature to rise.  

According to the Mayo Clinic, as temperature rises, the body sends more blood to circulate through skin to cool itself. This leaves less blood to circulate in the muscles, which in turn increases heart rate. In humidity, as we often have in the Midwest, sweat is unable to fully evaporate from the skin, causing body temperature to rise further.

When exposed to high heat and humidity, the body’s natural cooling systems begin to fail. Without sufficient hydration or lowering of temperature, muscles may begin to painfully contract, or experience heat cramps. If body temperature rises to 104 F, adults can experience nausea, headache, vomiting or fainting - or what we know as heat exhaustion.

Heat exhaustion can lead to heat stroke. Heat stroke occurs when body temperature surpasses 104 F. The skin may be hot, but the body may stop sweating to help cool itself. At this point an adult can develop confusion and irritability and should seek immediate medical attention.

When unattended, heat stroke can cause brain damage, organ failure, and even death. Symptoms indicating heat stroke may include rapid heartbeat, rapid, shallow breathing, elevated or lowered blood pressure, lack of normal sweating, irritability or confusion, headache, dizziness, light headedness or unconsciousness, nausea and/or fainting.

If you suspect that you or someone you know is experiencing heat stroke, move to a cool, shady, or air-conditioned space. Call 911 or emergency medical help immediately. Have the person drink cool water or other nonalcoholic beverage (without caffeine). Cool them by covering with damp sheets or by spraying them with cool water. Direct air towards them with a fan, or a make shift fan such as a newspaper, until help arrives.

Physical or prolonged activity outside in the summer can increase the chances of you or your loves ones experiencing these illnesses - but there are also easy steps to take to remain safe in the heat:

1. As mentioned above, stay out of the sun as much as possible. Try to schedule events outdoors around the hours the sun is the strongest (before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.) Get your outside time in earlier in the morning before the sun and humidity increase.

2. Spend as much time as possible in air conditioned spaces. Have your air-conditioning system regularly serviced, and try to coordinate social or recreational activities at places that have air conditioning, like the local library or senior center, indoor malls, movie theaters or meeting friends at their homes.

3. Wear loose clothing in breathable, natural fabrics.

4. Get creative with your work out routines. If you’re used to exercising outside, do your daily walks earlier in the morning or later in the evening when temperatures are lower. Check out your local park district or senior center for fitness classes and indoor recreation, like an indoor pool for laps or adult intramural groups. Or, move the exercise routine inside and use a fitness or yoga DVD, or tune into exercise classes streaming online from sites like YouTube.

5. Take showers, baths, or sponge baths with cooler water when you feel warm.

6. Drink plenty of water and other liquids that don’t contain alcohol or caffeine.

7. Get connected in case of an emergency. Arrange for family members or friends to check in on you regularly during the hot summer months. Make friends with your neighbors so that if anything happens, someone is nearby who will notice and be able to help.

8. Be prepared in case an emergency happens while you are home alone. Make a list of emergency phone numbers and place them in an easy to access area.

9. Seek help if needed. State programs exist specifically to assist seniors stay healthy during hot seasons. For more information on cooling centers, assistance and resources visit the website at

By following these easy steps for preparedness, you can significantly lower your risk of illness or dangerous situations, and enjoy a summer full of fun, friends and family, delicious food, and the great outdoors.