by Reisha Zang

A recent study at the University of Edinburgh suggests that exposing skin to sunlight helps to reduce blood pressure, cuts the risk of heart attack and stroke and even prolongs life. Knowing the benefits of sun, the Valley sure is a great place to be. However, living in the desert does come with some unique health risks.

With Phoenix Comes Sunshine 

Exposing yourself to the UV rays of the sun can damage skin in as little as 15 minutes. Products containing sun protection factors (SPF) are essential in defending your skin and should be used daily.

Prolonged sun exposure can lead to sun poisoning, which is a severe sunburn accompanied by symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, tiredness, fever, chills and/ or headache. “Go indoors and keep hydrated,” advises Allison Kaplan, M.D., FAAFP of Desert Grove Family Medical. “If your symptoms persist, seek medical assistance immediately.”

According to the American Cancer Society, 3,500,000+ cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year. The majority of these cases are directly related to accumulated sun exposure, so examine your skin regularly. “If you find a lesion that is darkly pigmented, irregularly shaped or is chronically irritated, consult a physician,” cautions Richard Dinsdale, M.D. of Desert Grove Family Medical. “Any skin cancer, if identified early, can easily be treated, even a malignant melanoma.”

With Sunshine Comes Heat

When the temperature rises, so does your risk for dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. It is important to drink plenty of fluids every day to ward off dehydration, a condition where your body doesn’t have as much water as it should. Heat exhaustion can occur after a few days of exposure to high temperatures and/ or not taking in enough water. Both conditions can lead to heat stroke.

“Heat stroke is a true medical emergency that is often fatal if not properly recognized and promptly treated,” cautions Donald White, M.D. of Desert Grove Family Medical.  Symptoms include high body temperature, the absence of sweating, hot red or flushed dry skin, rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, strange behavior, hallucinations, confusion, agitation, seizure and/or coma. Severe hyperthermia (heat-related illness) occurs when the body temperature rises to 104° F or higher.

“Victims of heat stroke must receive immediate treatment to avoid permanent organ damage. Call 911 immediately,” says White. While waiting for the ambulance, there are steps you can take to help. “Get the victim to a shady area, remove excess clothing, apply cool water to the skin and fan them to promote sweating and evaporation,” advises White. Quick and effective treatment can save a life.

With Heat Comes Desert

“There are 17 types of rattlesnakes that reside in Arizona, but it is the Western Diamondback that is responsible for most of the bites,” says Dinsdale. Summer time is when snakes are most active, but you can still encounter them during the winter on sunny days.

Snakes want to avoid you as much as you want to avoid them. Pay attention to the environment and avoid areas where a snake might be hiding. Typically, most rattlesnake bites are not fatal. “If bitten, keep the involved area still: do not try to suck out the venom and do not apply a tourniquet above the bite site,” explains Dinsdale. “Most important, seek out medical attention as soon as possible.”

Arizona also is home to over 40 varieties of scorpions. While a scorpion sting is quite painful, it’s most likely not deadly. “If stung by a scorpion, apply a cool compress and take a dose of Benadryl,” advises Dinsdale. “If symptoms intensify, such as blurred vision, shortness of breath or intense pain at the sting site, go directly to the emergency room or contact poison control.”

With Desert Comes Dirt

Two-thirds of all U.S. Valley Fever infections are contracted in Arizona, reports the University of Arizona’s Valley Fever Center for Excellence. “Valley Fever is a fungal infection that is caused by a species of known as Cocciioides,” explains Dinsdale. “It is found in our soil and when the wind or construction disturb the soil, especially if there have been recent rains, the fungal particles become airborne and are inhaled by people.” Although there is really no way to avoid being exposed, it is not contagious. In many cases individuals show no signs of sickness, while others may experience mild flu-like symptoms.

“Many of us have been previously exposed to Valley Fever without ever knowing it,” says Dinsdale. “Those at high risk include people who have asthma, COPD and emphysema.” Symptoms can range from fever, cough, chest pain, chills or night sweats to headache, fatigue, joint aches or a red, spotty rash.

In severe cases, Valley Fever can cause chronic pneumonia, meningitis or infection in bones and joints. With blood work and a chest x-ray, a physician can identify and treat the condition with medication. “With appropriate treatment, this infection will resolve though it can take many months for a person to recover,” explains Dinsdale.

With a Little Good Sense

Be prepared. The most important factor in preventing heat illness is adequate fluid replacement. Do not wait until you are thirsty: stay hydrated.

Try to limit activity during extremely hot days. If you must do strenuous work or exercise in the heat, drink water frequently. Electrolyte drinks, such as Gatorade and Pedialyte for children, are helpful.

If you do find yourself outside, be smart. Avoid direct sun exposure; stay in shaded areas, wear a wide-brimmed hat and apply sunscreen. Wear loose fitting, light-weight and light-colored clothing. Try to park in the shade and, whenever possible, allow your car to cool off before getting in.

And remember to NEVER leave a child, adult or pet in a parked car for ANY period of time. In your haste, a quiet passenger can be forgotten, so check before leaving your auto.