As the summer heat leaves us reeling in Kerala, it is time to take a look at what we can do to stay healthy.
What are the problems of an unusually hot summer?
Summer heat consists of the sun’s radiation coming down on earth in the form of infra red and UV rays, and radiant heat- that is, heat emitted from surfaces such as concrete buildings after absorbing the sun’s heat.
South India being close to the equator, the humidity (water content of air) is high, making it feel warmer than it actually is. At night, the heavy water vapour content of the air, along with excess CO2, will absorb infra red rays emitted upwards from the earth’s surface, and reflect them back on to earth. This phenomenon, which is called greenhouse effect, prevents the ground from cooling down.
The human body has several cooling mechanisms, of which sweating is a major component. Evaporation of sweat from our skin causes a cooling effect on the body. Unfortunately, when humidity is high, evaporation does not occur readily, and cooling doesn’t happen. Evaporation occurs easily when the air is dry or if there is breeze.
Outbreaks of certain infectious diseases occur during summer. Examples are chicken pox, conjunctivitis, diarrhoea, jaundice and skin infections. Kidney stones are common. Heat stroke, heat exhaustion, sunburns occur among those exposed to the hot sun for long periods of time.
Who is affected the most?
The body becomes dehydrated faster in summer, and this process affects the very young and the very old, more than other people. Older people may not feel thirsty when needed, and could have impaired sweating mechanisms or suffer excess urinary water loss due to the action of certain medications.
Those who spend time outdoors in hot conditions between the hours of 10 am and 3 pm.are at greater risk.
What are some practical steps that can be taken to beat the summer heat?
1. Wear white/lighter colours when outdoors. This helps reflect heat waves away from our body and keep us cool. Loose-fitting cotton clothes are ideal for the season.
2. Drink plenty of water, even if not thirsty. Lightly salted buttermilk, coconut water and lime juice are good alternatives.
3. Avoid concentrated (hyperosmotic) drinks such as sugary sodas and fruit juices. Stay away from salty (junk) foods.
4. Be careful with the use of commercial ice when cooling yourself off at roadside eateries with a fruit juice or sarbath. Unless it comes from a safe source, ice can harbour harmful germs. It would be safer to use bottled water to prepare the juice, with no added ice in such instances.
5. Avoid food/fruit stalls that have filthy surroundings such as a blocked drain or accumulated garbage in the vicinity. Even if the stall itself appears clean, flies can spread diseases in such settings.
6. Many diseases such as dysentery, cholera, typhoid and hepatitis spread through contaminated water. 'Jaundice' (the colloquial term in Kerala for hepatitis A or E) is caused by a virus that spreads through water and can't be filtered. Boiling water for one full minute will eliminate harmful bacteria and viruses.
7. Washing hands often will help prevent the spread of many contagious diseases, including conjunctivitis (red eye) and diarrhoea.
8. Schools are closed for summer. Most kids love to play in the sun. Instruct them to wear hats, drink lots of water and take frequent short breaks in the shade.
9. Even if it might seem unfashionable, do not hesitate to use an umbrella when out in the sun. The colour blue provides the best protection against UV rays.
10. UV (A) and (B) rays can harm your skin even on a cloudy day. Wear sun lotion SPF 25-30 when you expect prolonged sun exposure.
11. If possible, minimise outdoor activity between 10 am and 3 pm.
12. Be careful when taking a dip in water in the hot sun. Sunburn risk is higher as UV rays get reflected on to your body, doubling the exposure.
13. Sunstroke is a serious condition, requiring prompt hospitalisation. It occurs when the heat regulating mechanisms in the body break down, and could even be fatal. Heat cramps and sunburns are less serious.
14. Children and the elderly are more susceptible to sunstroke. They need to stay well-hydrated in summer, taking frequent sips of water throughout the day.
15. Planting trees is part of social responsibility. Trees consume harmful carbon dioxide and other polluting gases. Apart from producing flowers and fruit, trees provide shade and help reduce dust and noise pollution in our homes. Dwarf trees are available now, and are suited for smaller urban plots. June would be a good time to plant them, so they get ample water supply at the outset.
16. Last, but not the least, while we take measures to improve our own health and comfort this summer, let us not forget our bird and animal friends who share the planet with us. It would be kind to leave some water outside for them during this hot season. Remember to change the water every two days so we don’t help bring out more mosquitoes!
(The author is a Senior Consultant Gastroenterologist and the Deputy Medical Director, Sunrise Group of Hospitals, Kochi. His column, Everyday Health, will appear every alternate week)