Summer is when people want to relax and have fun, but there are many dangers to be aware of. In this episode, Dr. Bjorn Mercer talks to health science professor Dr. Jameelah Powell about common summer health hazards. Learn about food-related illnesses, dangers from heat like heat stroke and dehydration, as well as parasites, tick-borne illnesses and more.
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Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Hello, my name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer, and today we’re talking to Dr. Jameelah Powell, faculty in the School of Health Sciences. And today we’re going to be talking about summer health hazards. Welcome, Jameelah.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Thank you. Thank you for having me back.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Of course. I love our conversations and summer health hazards, although it sounds ominous and a little dangerous, it’s important to think about before the summer comes and we all start going outside and having fun. But there are some things out there that we need to be weary of. And so, the first question is what are some summer health hazards out there?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Well, I think summer is a time to have fun and enjoy, but I do think people need to be cautious. Because I think what they do is, it’s summertime and they throw caution to the wind and they just enjoy. But I think you do need to think ahead. I think that’s the first thing is plan. Wherever you’re going make sure you’re planning, make sure you’re bringing the correct items so that you’re not stuck somewhere getting a sunburn, things like that.
The thing with the summer is the heat. And I thinkwhen we think of summer we think of picnics, we think of gatherings, we think of seeing barbecue, seeing family and friends. And one of the things that happens is we get a little carried away with our time chumming it up with family and we forget about the food. And things like potato salad, things that have mayonnaise in it, things that can go bad really quickly tend to stay out much longer than we would intend if we were in the house. So, that’s the first thing that I would probably caution people against is making sure you watch out for your food.
The other thing is just heat-related stuff, heat stroke and people can also have heat exhaustion which is a little milder than heat stroke. But that’s a really big, I think, issue, and just things like sunburns, things like going swimming, making sure you’re looking at where you’re swimming, the quality of the water. So, those would be my major things, is heat-related issues. And then, I would say diseases that are related to the weather, and then, of course, your food poisoning. Those are the major things we see in the summer.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are great because for a large portion of the population, in the U.S., I should say, have been stuck inside, winter, it’s been cold. It’s been hard to do things outside. And so, when the summer comes you throw caution to the wind and have some fun. But there are some very serious things we have to consider. And one thing you said about heat, having lived in Arizona for many years, unfortunately, people die here when they go hiking in the summer.
And as a local, we never understand why anybody goes hiking in the summer. Because, well, for lack of a better description, you don’t go hiking in the summer because it’s going to be 110, 115, and that is the last thing to do. Even if you go hiking when it’s 90 degrees in a dry heat you need so much water. And, as a person you need to be used to that, because if you’re not used to that, your body can react negatively.
And so, just thinking about something in a specific locale like Arizona, you got to be careful in the summer. But even thinking if you’re up in Michigan and it’s hot and it’s humid, again, even if you’re from there you got to think about hydration. Do people often forget about hydration?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Absolutely. I think even during the winter we don’t as Americans drink enough water, I think. And I think a lot of that has to do with busyness. I think some of it has to do with just not knowing how much is enough water for your body because everybody is different. You may need more water than I do.
People who have chronic health issues may need more water. And just your lifestyle and your eating habits really determine how much water you need. So, if you’re a diabetic you probably need to drink a lot more water. If you exercise a lot, you probably need to drink a lot more water because you are expending a lot more energy, you’re probably sweating more.
So, I think people just don’t know how much is enough water. They may have this eight-glasses-of-water thing in their head. And that’s great if you are drinking eight glasses of water. But, to be honest, if you are a bigger person or if you’re just a little bit more active throughout the day, you probably need more. And I would imagine that if you’re a coffee drinker or if you like to partake in alcohol, especially in the summertime when people are enjoying and having fun, you’re going to need more water. Because caffeine and alcohol can be very dehydrating, so you need to replace that water.
So, there’s a mixture of things going on in the summer. You’ve got the heat which is really tiring and can deplete a lot of your water storage. And then you’re just sweating more and you’re also just maybe drinking a little bit more. And so, those are things you really want to think about.
So, I would always tell people, “Please have at least two bottles of water just on you all of the time.” But if you’re hiking, oh, my gosh, I feel like you need to have a gallon of water with you because you just never know. What if something happens? What if you get delayed and you end up having to stay there longer than you wanted to? You just want to be protected.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And something as simple as water, we, as contemporary humans, and especially in this country, we just assume water will always will be there. And we just assume that water will be drinkable. And so we always have to be very careful. And I always recommend people take some sort of water container, some sort of metal container, something to have water all the time.
I would say metal so it’s reusable, so it can last forever as long as you take care of it, so you don’t have to use plastic over and over and over. And like you said, coffee, alcohol and heat, those things can dry you out. And by the time you get that headache, that’s actually too late. Then you have to recover from that and just drinking some water instantly won’t satisfy that. Your body then has to go into recovery mode.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Oh, yeah. I think a lot of people don’t realize, the headache is sometimes you’re just dehydrated and they maybe think, “Oh, I just have a headache again.” But, again, at the point that you have a headache, like you said, it’s a little too late. Now you have to drink enough water just to get rid of the headache. But you’re probably still dehydrated and then you have to drink even more water just to give your body what it needs, especially in the summertime. But you were talking about drinking water and people take it for granted there’s going to be water available and that is so not the case.
I have a water backpack so I take it with me when I go to amusement parks or things like that where I know I’m going to be doing a lot of walking, and I don’t want to have to pay for bottled water. So, it’s really easy, it’s something that I think people who are hiking, like you said, should take because it’ll be easier to put on their back. And they can also store extra water bottles on the side of that backpack as well. But yes, I think water is probably the most understated thing of the summer, you have to have water.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly and especially when you exercise. I think a lot of people who exercise a lot, they realize the need for hydration. But those who are maybe starting to exercise or exercise more, hydration and having the right amount of water is extremely important for your body, to not only build muscle but to recover.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: There are these IV hydration packs that sometimes if I realize I’ve gone through the day and I haven’t had a lot of water I’m like, “Oh, my gosh.” There’s these little packs that give you a boost of electrolytes and things like that because I’ve probably lost a lot during the day, I probably was sweating. Sometimes I even exercise and just forget to drink the water because it’s such a busy day for me sometimes. And I think those hydration packs, they’re not a cure-all at all, but I think it’s important to replace and replenish those things that you’ve lost throughout the day.
It’s let’s say, 7:00 or 8:00 at night and you realize, “I haven’t had a lot of water,” and then you start pounding it, that’s not going to really work. It’s kind of like sleep, you have to get it when you can get it. You can’t really ever recover from it. So, I think it’s important not to do that and you can actually make yourself sick doing that, as well. So I think it’s important, if that happens, just drink something that has a lot of electrolytes.
And I’m not going to suggest Gatorade or things that have a lot of sugar, but there are things that have some electrolytes in it that I think can just help, especially if you’ve gone throughout the day without drinking too much water. You just need to build that back up in your body and then try again tomorrow.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Excellent. And this leads us to the next question, what are some precautions we can take with the variety of different risks that are out there?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Okay, this is going to sound very, very broad but aside from the water, one of the things that I tell people to do is protect themselves in the heat. And this is going to sound super counterintuitive, because people in the summertime, they just want to wear the least amount of clothes that they can. And sometimes that’s actually the opposite of what you want to do if you don’t have protection. If you have a hat or sun block, sure, wear your tank top or your shorts or things like that. But if you don’t have anything to protect you, you don’t have any sun block, you don’t have an umbrella at the beach or something like that, you might want to wear some light fabric that is long-sleeve to cover your arms. Because that’s where we see a lot of people get burned because they’re just not paying attention.
So, I would recommend always wearing something that, it’s light but it’s long-sleeve to protect you from the sun, especially if it’s really, really hot out. It’s interesting because if you go to the desert where people live in that weather, they’re not wearing tank tops and shorts, they’re wearing long-sleeve clothing and they’re wearing these ties around their head that protect them from the heat. So, again, people who live, I want to say in our weather, especially in California, they have rarely any long-sleeve clothing on in the summer. And I think people just don’t think about that. But folks who really live in that type of weather understand the importance of being protected because the sun can do a lot of damage.
So, I think wearing the proper clothing, and that also includes wearing a large-brimmed hat, I think that’s important. Also your footwear is important. There’s a lot of foot injuries during the summer because people like to walk around with either flip-flops or barefoot and there’s a lot of injuries that happen. Whether you’re stepping on something, a nail. This is going to lead me into my parasite discussion, there are parasites that live in the ground so you have to be careful where you walk. So, it’s always important, I think for people just to take care. Don’t just go out, “It’s summertime, let’s just be free.” You still have to protect yourself because there are a lot of injuries, I think, that happen in the summer.
So, wearing your light clothing, long-sleeve, your hats, making sure your feet are protected, the other thing is making sure you’re wearing sunscreen. Because sunscreen is going to protect you from the sun. And the thing with sunscreen that I think people forget is you have to reapply it. If you go into the water or if you’re sweating, you need to make sure that you reapply it. And you also need to make sure you’re wearing the right level of SPF. There’s 15 and up. It can go 15 all the way up to 100, I believe. 15, I think, is low, especially in the summer. So, I think researchers recommend 30 and up. And if you have darker skin you probably want to go with the 40 or 50 and up.
As far as swimming, because that is where I think can be dangerous. I love swimming, I love being in the water but I think you do have to be careful. You can’t just go in there and swallow water and just have all kinds of fun because there are lots of parasites in the water. And I’m not talking about swimming pools because swimming pools typically have chlorine in them and they keep that at bay. But if you’re in lakes and standing water that doesn’t really move very often, reservoirs and things like that, you are going to be presented with probably lots of parasites.
Some of the more popular ones, when I worked in public health we used to get them a lot in the summertime, cryptosporidiosis, which is called a crypto for short. That’s one of the most common ones. And then of course there’s giardia, which is another parasite, and amoebas. And that’s the scary one because that’s the flesh-eating one and so you want to be careful.
I would tell people, don’t swallow any water, just don’t swallow any water. It’s just not a good habit, period. But also, there’s things like swimmer’s ears where you get water in your ear. And because the water is filled with germs, it can cause infections. And it’s not like your typical ear infection, middle-ear infection, it’s an outer ear infection so it can be kind of painful. Sometimes it can be foul smelling. And what I tell people for that is just try to get the water out of your ear. When you come out of the water just shake your head, tilt it to the side, get a towel and just get as much water as you can out of your ear. Because that’s something that I think is really uncomfortable and super easy to prevent. Just dry your ears when you can.
But, as far as the parasites, just don’t swallow any water if you can. If you can, wear nose clips, that would be good, too. That will prevent water from going up your nose. Because even if you aren’t swallowing water with your mouth, if it goes up your nose, you’re ingesting it anyway because your mouth and your nose are connected. So those are the things that I would encourage.
I know we talked about Lyme Disease. Lyme Disease is another really important one that happens during the summertime where ticks become a little bit more prevalent during the summertime. And because ticks are so small, people don’t usually see them and especially if you are wearing not a lot of clothing, because then you’re not able to see them on your skin as well. When people are going hiking it’s actually better to wear long sleeves and longer pants because you can see the ticks a little bit better on your clothing if it’s light-colored clothing. And it’ll actually prevent you from getting bit from these ticks because they are very, very tiny.
I saw a picture of one on a blade of grass. And so, if it’s that small you’re probably not going to be able to see it on you. So inspect yourself after your hike. Make sure you are inspecting yourself three or four days after the hike because like I said, ticks are really small, they can hide. So just doing those inspections on your body, wearing long clothing and light-colored clothing when you go hiking, so those are a couple of things, I would say, that I would want to talk about.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And those are absolutely wonderful. It makes me think of just so many things. When you go and do outside for fun you just have to think about it. And you’re just protecting yourself, you’re protecting family, maybe your kids, people that you care about. I live in Arizona and so when I think of the people who work outside all the time like various yard people, they’re head-to-toe covered in clothes. They’re not wearing tank tops. They’re not wearing flip-flops. They’re wearing closed-toed everything. They’re wearing long-sleeve and pants.
For people who want to go out and enjoy, wear linen, a very soft and breathable cotton versus wearing some poly-combo, sweat-resistant thing. You want your body to really react to the heat normally so your body does what it’s supposed to do when it gets hot. And then also with suntan lotion, for whatever shade of color you are, you just need to be very careful. Having lived in the desert most of my life, I can’t stand suntans because melanoma is a serious problem here. In a sense we try to avoid the sun at all costs. But at the same time, I’ve gotten many sunburns on my feet and on top of my feet because of the flip-flops I wear. And we usually wear flip-flops for five months out of the year.
And so, you really need to be careful about something that you even forget about like the top of your feet. And so, this leads us to the next question, what are some diseases we need to protect against in the summer?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: So there was a couple of waterborne diseases that I talked about already. And what I mentioned for those is those are parasites. Just don’t swallow any water, matter of fact, don’t even dunk your head under water, swim but maybe keep your head above water. That would be really good.
But then there’s other things like West Nile Virus that I think is pretty common across the United States, is any time you have standing water. We get these little kiddie pools that we want for our pets or our kids, whatever. And we have to remember to empty that water out because any little bit of water can cause mosquitoes and they breed in that standing water. And that can cause you to be exposed to West Nile Virus, through a bite from a mosquito.
And even though I think there was a big surge in West Nile Virus some years ago, people have forgotten about it. It is still around, you can still get infected with West Nile Virus and sometimes it can cause some pretty serious side effects afterwards. I feel like in a way, similar to COVID, you can have long West Nile Virus just like you can have long COVID. You can have symptoms, body aches and things that last for a few weeks to a few months. So, that’s one that I would really be careful of.
As I mentioned before, Lyme Disease is something that you really want to be mindful of in the summer. Especially if you live where there is a lot of trees and bushes and things like that, if you live in those areas, because that’s where animals with ticks like to be and so it’s important, just be mindful of that. It’s usually more common in the Northeastern states, but I was actually reading some research a little while ago, earlier this week, and they found some in California, in areas of California that they didn’t think that they would see it. So, you just have to be cautious, you just never know.
The other thing that I would mention is probably just skin cancer. I think you mentioned it a little while ago. But skin cancer is something, like I said, people don’t always think about. You mentioned the tops of your feet when you have flip-flops on. And so, when you are putting on sunscreen, you want to make sure you cover every area that’s exposed, the back of your neck, your arms and the tops of your feet because I think a lot of people forget about that. Their nose, when I go to the beach and I see people with sunscreen on, I always see the nose. People always have it on their nose. I see them putting it on their arms and their legs but I don’t always see them putting it on their feet. And sometimes I think people forget, “How do you put it on your back if you don’t have anyone there to help you with that?”
So, just be mindful of that. Skin cancer is real and anyone can get it. I know even as an African American myself, I think people in my community are like, “Yeah, I can’t get skin cancer.” I’m like, “You absolutely can. The problem is it will be harder for you to find it because you have darker skin.” So, it’s actually really important for you to prevent it even more so because you won’t be able to detect it as easily.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: And that’s interesting. My wife had skin cancer when she was 17, just a little bit of melanoma which they removed. At that point she was like, how did she get it? She played soccer, club soccer, for many years. So, she was outside for years, essentially, practicing. But at the same time, there’s thousands of other kids who do the same thing and don’t get it, the randomness of sometimes getting skin cancer. But you can always prevent it. And, yet, no matter what skin you are, what color you are, you always need it. And besides the top of my feet, I always do the top of my ears. Because you got to be careful, that is a very delicate spot.
And when you were talking about ticks, I remember getting ticks on myself when we lived in Greece. I was probably seven, eight, and we would just run around everywhere on the island of Crete in Greece. It’s very Mediterranean, probably very similar to the L.A. area as far as the scrub and the climate. But I remember multiple times getting ticks and luckily nothing ever happened. But, I think as a parent, if you have kids who go out and run in fields and obviously have fun during the summer, it’s on you to really check your kids for those potential ticks. And obviously Lyme Disease is worst case scenario, oh, my gosh, that happens, but even just to get those ticks off before something could potentially happen.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: There is a process to getting the ticks off. You mentioned something that I just thought about but I was also in Greece, as well. And I was not in that particular area. I was in somewhere, Santorini. It was extremely hot. I almost felt like I was walking on the sun. It was so bright and so hot there. So I know there weren’t any ticks around because there weren’t a lot of foliage. There just wasn’t a lot of that. So I can imagine in tropical areas though, where the weather is really warm like that and even humid, oh, my gosh, you really want to be very mindful of just really, a lot of the insects there, but also the ticks.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: We actually went to Santorini once. And very beautiful, the hills and the town on the side of the-
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Oh, yeah-
Dr. Bjorn Mercer:… mountain. Or it’s not really a mountain, but a hill, but I just say mountain then.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: The cliff.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: The cliff, just absolutely beautiful, the volcano that exploded thousands of years ago that created that environment. But no, Greece like many Mediterranean environments or much like the L.A. area, rich, beautiful, lots of plants but also a lot of insects. So like with anything, you just have to be careful. Now for those who might be taking trips outside of the country, what should you do before you go there?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: I think one important thing that I always do is check the weather. Before I go somewhere I want to know what the weather is going to be while I’m there, because you need to be prepared. And this is where I started, knowing where you’re going, knowing what you’re doing. So if you’re going to be going especially outside of the country to a place that you have not been before, you want to know the weather. You want to know what it’s like because even though it may be summer here for us, you may go to a country that is either above or below the equator and it may not be summer for them. And so you are preparing with summer clothing and it’s actually raining there.
So know the weather, know what it’s going to be like. Know what is endemic to that area. And what I mean by endemic is what are the issues? What are the health issues that typically occur most commonly in that area? Things like tick-borne issues, like I said, those are endemic to Northeastern states where I feel like those people are aware of it. But in other countries, West Nile Virus, malaria, diseases that aren’t as common to United States, you might need to find out like, “What are those things that are common to this country that I’m going to that I’m not familiar with?” Things like Yellow Fever, stuff like that. You may have never even heard of it.
So I would say do research on that country, do research on the area that you’re going to so you know, “What are the diseases that I need to protect myself from?” A lot of them are mosquito-borne diseases. So, it’s important to know how are you going to protect yourself from the mosquitoes. Make sure you get the spray. Make sure that you have clothing that you can cover yourself up at nighttime if they don’t have mosquito nets. Or if you’re going to be outside, how are you going to keep the mosquitoes away from you? So, I think those are really important.
Again, with water, that’s another thing when you go to other countries where the hygiene practices may not be the same. So, animals and people are bathing in the same reservoirs of water, that’s something that you really need to be aware of because that means that water is probably going to be infected with diseases that you may not be exposed to out here in the states, or that you may not be familiar with. So it’s important to know that, “What are the practices? What’s the culture here and what happens if I do get exposed to something? Do I bring that with me so that I can treat myself?” Because you may not have access to it, depending on where you’re going, if you’re going on safari.
It just depends on what type of vacation you’re having. If you’re going to an all-expenses paid resort, it may be a little different than if you’re going to a more rural area where you’re trying to be with the people. You may need to bring some stuff because you may not have the ability to get it if you actually need it.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And for those who can take vacations outside of the country, which is great and if people are lucky enough to do that, just be aware that not everywhere is like the U.S. Not everywhere is like Canada. And even not everywhere is like Mexico, honestly. When you go down to Mexico it’s a great country. But as with anything, you have to be careful about the water source anywhere you go. Or even to Canada where in the summer, lots of bugs. Everything is alive in Canada when it’s not covered in snow. Or you go down to Mexico and you go down to Yucatan and you’re getting closer to the equator and so a little more jungle. Or you go to Baja and it’s a little more like L.A. Just know where you’re going so you can be prepared. Absolutely wonderful, any final words, Jameelah?
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Take care of your skin in the summer, drink water, and be prepared and make sure you wear your sunscreen. And I think if you can do those things, I think you’ll be good.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: I love that. And take care of your skin because we’re going to have the same skin, essentially, from the age we’re 10 to 40, to 80. And if you take care of your skin throughout your life hopefully it’ll look as beautiful as it is today.
Dr. Jameelah Powell: Yeah, it’s your largest organ so take care of it. You’re not going to get anymore.
Dr. Bjorn Mercer: Exactly. And so today we’re speaking with Dr. Jameelah Powell about summer health hazards. My name is Dr. Bjorn Mercer and thank you for listening.