Infections, insects, sun, pool water -- they all wreak havoc on skin.
By Jeanie Lerche Davis
Reviewed By Michael Smith
Summer does have its itchy downside. If athlete's foot or jock itch don't plague you, chances are you're prey to mosquitoes, yellow jackets, fire ants, maybe poison ivy. Your skin also pays the price for those hours you spend in the sun and pool. Here are some survival tips from the experts:
Athlete's foot and jock itch leave a patchy rash that itches like the devil. These are caused by a fungus called ringworm -- "opportunists," says Ron Shelton, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center and co-director of The New York Aesthetic Center in New York City.
"They're really prevalent in a dark, moist, and warm environment [like on the feet or the groin]," he tells WebMD. "If they find the right conditions, they thrive."
Rules of prevention:
- Get out of any sweaty clothes as soon as you can.
- Wear clothing that "breathes well," such as cotton.
- Wear socks with sneakers, or change sneakers often.
- Wear absorbent powder in those sweat-prone areas as a preventive measure.
But if infection has developed, see a doctor. Treating yourself with those over-the-counter creams and sprays presents a problem with these infections, says Shelton. "You might get rid of most of the infection -- yet not all of it, and not enough [of the infection] is left to show up on a lab test. So it's difficult for a physician to diagnose the problem accurately."
Heat rash is caused by sweat glands that get blocked under clothing. Sweat accumulates under skin, which creates little, itchy, red or clear bumps. Talcum powder won't help, even though you may be inclined to use it. Cool compresses work best; try soaking a tea bag in water for your compress, Shelton suggests. Also, keep skin as cool and dry as possible.
Pool and Sun Problems
Chlorine wreaks havoc on hair and skin. Green hair after a pool party is a problem for some. Just make sure you rinse off thoroughly after swimming. Moisturizer for your skin is optional, says Shelton.
"Protect yourself" is the experts' mantra:
- Always use a sun block with SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher -- even under your clothes. Loosely woven cloth such as cotton provides very little sun protection.
- Stay out of the sun during the midday hours, when rays are strongest.
- Reapply sunscreen often.
Poison ivy, oak, and sumac all work the same. Your nemesis is urushiol, the poisonous oil that adheres to your skin and causes the symptoms, says Kathy Burke, MD, PHD, a dermatologist at Cabrini Medical Center in New York City. The itching and rashes don't appear immediately; it typically takes between 5 to 21 days before you feel those effects.
Important note: "If you wash within 20 minutes of touching it, you probably won't get it," Burke tells WebMD.
Once you've got blisters, make sure you don't spread the poison to other parts of your skin. "People think it's spreading, but the blister fluid itself won't spread it," Burke tells WebMD. "You spread it yourself by touching the poison on your skin, then touching another place on your body."
Some "poison ivy protectant" products are available over-the-counter and provide a barrier on your skin. Also, a product called Zanfel Poison Ivy Wash is said to completely remove the poisonous oil from the skin and provide lasting relief from symptoms within usually 30 seconds of application.
Best idea, if you're allergic: Wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts plus gloves if you're around poison ivy. Don't touch clothes after taking them off, and wash them right away. Sensitive people can get it after being exposed to a minor amount, even from pets' fur, says Burke.
To ease itching: Benadryl helps. So do oatmeal baths, 1/2% hydrocortisone cream, and calamine lotion. Putting ice on the itch acts as a topical anesthetic. If your reaction is really bad, a doctor should prescribe steroid creams, Burke says. "It's worth going to the doctor the first time, then using those medications again the next time you're exposed."
Insect Stings and Bites
Usually, insects are just an annoyance -- but some people are deathly allergic to stings and bites. Anaphylaxis is a severe reaction and nothing to take lightly, Burke tells WebMD. "You can't breathe because your throat starts to close. You have to get right to the hospital, or you literally die."
How do you know if you're deathly allergic? If you have a family history of anaphylaxis, or if you've ever had a very bad reaction to a sting or penicillin injection, you need what's known as an "epi pen."
"Epi" is short for epinephrine -- an injectible form of adrenaline -- that reverses the allergic reaction immediately. "I tell people, carry the epi pen in your purse, in your suitcase when you travel," Burke tells WebMD. "Just be sure you have it at all times. They say a certain number of car accidents are caused by bee stings reactions."
Also requiring emergency medical attention:
- Spider bites
- Severe reactions to bee stings or fire ant bites (fainting, difficulty breathing)
- Snake bites (immediately tie a tourniquet to prevent poison from getting into your blood).
To prevent bites from pesky mosquitoes, which could carry West Nile virus:
- Light citronella candles
- Wear repellent-treated clothing
- Put repellent on exposed skin and clothing
Originally published June 3, 2002.
Medically updated May 20, 2003.
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