Summer Health Handbook

Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, it is. Turns out the sand is what'll get you. Presenting a guide to the season's most surprising perils—and a celebration of its greatest gifts.

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Here's your guide for staying safe and healthy during the summer.

Most prevalent predator: Mosquito

No stats exist on the number of people who've been bitten by these pesky bloodsuckers, but our estimates put the figure at, oh, pretty much everyone. "Mosquitoes thrive in every part of the country," says Susan Paskewitz, an entomologist at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. An itchy welt is the most common result of a bite, but in rare cases mosquitoes can transmit West Nile virus and encephalitis. At dawn and dusk—when mosquitoes are most active—Paskewitz advises wearing clothes that cover arms and legs and applying a repellent that contains DEET, picaridin, IR3535, or oil of lemon eucalyptus (also called PMD).

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Tastiest Skin Savers

Tomatoes: While there's no substitute for sunscreen, enjoying this juicy summer staple is a fine way to enhance your inner SPF. In a preliminary study at Newcastle University in England, volunteers who ate a quarter cup of tomato paste every day increased their skin's resistance to UV rays by 33 percent. The key compound could be lycopene, an antioxidant plant pigment that gives tomatoes their red hue. For best results, toss them on the grill—the body absorbs lycopene more easily from foods that are cooked.

Hungry for more? Studies suggest these foods can help protect you from the sun, too:

Salmon: Omega-3 fatty acids in the fish might reduce the risk of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—by undoing some early DNA damage to skin.

Dark chocolate: Volunteers in one study who consumed daily doses of cocoa flavonoids—which are abundant in dark chocolate—ended up more resistant to sunburns than they were at the start of the experiment.

Leafy greens: Research has found that skin cancer survivors who regularly munch spinach and lettuce are less likely to experience recurrence than survivors who rarely eat greens.

Sneakiest Source of Muscle Strains: Gardening

If you aren't careful, your green thumb could lead to a sore back.

"Gardening involves a lot of bending, twisting, lifting, and pulling, and yet most of us don't think of it as exercise," says Holly Perkins, a certified strength and conditioning specialist in Los Angeles. To avoid injury, baby your muscles just as you would with any other workout, she says.

Try these moves before and after loading up your wheelbarrow.

Hamstring stretch: Stand 1½ feet away from a low step. Place right foot on step, leg straight. Bend knee and slowly lean forward until you feel a gentle stretch in the back of your right thigh. Hold for a count of 10. Repeat with the opposite leg.

Upper-body opener: Stand in a doorway. Place your palms on the frame with elbows bent at 90 degrees and upper arms parallel to the floor. Keeping palms on frame, take one step through the doorway so arms stretch behind you. Hold for a count of 15.

Side extender: Stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Extend right arm upward and stretch, leaning slightly to the left. (Don't bounce.) Hold for a count of 10. Repeat on the opposite side.

Craziest way to get sick: Burrowing at the beach.

No sense hiding your head in the sand on this one. In a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill survey of 27,000 beachgoers, those who used their hands to dig holes and build sand castles were 13 percent more likely to develop gastroenteritis (stomach flu) than folks who merely walked on the beach and swam. Sand is a hotbed for E. coli and other bacteria from wildlife and pets, and those germs transfer easily from hands to mouth, says study author Christopher D. Heaney. Wash up or use an alcohol-base hand sanitizer before eating or applying sunscreen to your face.

Simplest fire preventer: A tape measure

You always watch what's on the grill. How about what's next to the grill? Objects such as deck railings, low-hanging tree branches, and stacks of paper plates can easily ignite—and, in fact, are a leading cause of barbecue-related fires, says Judy Comoletti, director of public education at the National Fire Protection Association. Her advice: Use a tape measure to create a 3-foot clearance zone around the cooking surface. That gives stray embers enough space to cool off and will reduce the chance of flammable items falling onto the grates.

Worst use of a match: Lighting fireworks

Take a tip from the 8,800 people who are rushed to the hospital every year with burns, lacerations, and eye wounds caused by Roman candles, M-80s, and even sparklers: Pyrotechnics are best left to the pros.

Most dangerous holiday for a road trip: July 4

Car accidents spike on Independence Day, in part because snarled getaway traffic stokes aggressive driving. Keep your cool by allowing
extra time for your trip. If you encounter a hostile motorist, avoid eye contact and distance yourself from the vehicle.

Number most likely to save your life: Heat index

When you think scary weather, what comes to mind? A tornado, a hurricane, maybe a flash flood? Don't overlook extreme heat—it kills more people in the United States every year than all those other events combined, says Eli Jacks, a meteorologist with the National Weather  Service. Stay on top of the danger by checking your local weather forecast for the heat index, which tells you how hot the weather feels—and how hazardous it is—by factoring in humidity, an intensifier.

When the heat index hits 105°F, seek out air-conditioned environments. If you do venture outdoors, drink plenty of water, wear lightweight clothing, stay in the shade, and avoid strenuous exercise.

Most stubborn seasonal myth: Swimming after a meal is dangerous

This warning dates back decades, but it turns out you can dine and dive. "There's nothing in medical literature to suggest that people have drowned or gotten hurt as a result of swimming too soon after eating," says Gerald K. Endress, a clinical exercise physiologist at Duke University Diet & Fitness Center. The belief arose from a theory that blood rushes to the stomach during digestion, cutting circulation to the arms and legs and raising the risk of muscle cramps. Not true, Endress says. Go on in— the water's fine, and you will be, too.

Healthiest Summer Cocktail: Sangria

It's tough to go wrong with wine and fresh fruit. "Sangria tends to be lower in calories than other summer cocktails because it has less added sugar," says registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, author of The Flexitarian Diet (McGraw-Hill). "And the fruit delivers a bonus hit of nutrients, such as fiber and vitamin C."

"Why start wearing a bike helmet at my age?"

Coasting on good luck is a bad idea. Head injuries account for 70 percent of bicycling fatalities, with adults over age 25 making up a growing portion of those deaths, says Tess Benham, a program manager at the National Safety Council. Purchase a helmet that fits snugly, covers your forehead and the back of your head, and has straps that don't intrude on your peripheral vision. If your hair is long, a helmet with a ponytail cutout (like the Giro Skyla, $40; sporting goods stores) can help ensure a proper fit.


"The sky is cloudy, so I'll leave my sunglasses at home."

Even when you can't see the sun, its harmful ultraviolet rays have little trouble finding you. For eyes, that means an increased risk of cataracts, macular degeneration, and melanoma, says Dr. Paul T. Finger, an eye cancer specialist in New York City. Slip on UV-blocking shades (in addition to applying sunscreen) whenever you spend time outdoors during daylight hours.

"I'll just stay in my swimsuit—it'll dry sooner or later."

The problem is that it might not dry soon enough. A damp suit promotes the growth of bacteria and yeast, which can cause infection if they migrate to the urinary or reproductive tract, says Mary Jane Minkin, a clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Yale University School of Medicine. Pack dry clothes in your beach bag and change as soon as you're done swimming for the day.

Your approximate odds of being bitten this year by a …

 

Dog: 1 in 50, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Never approach an unfamiliar canine unless the owner assures you the animal is friendly, says Pamela Reid, vice president of the ASPCA’s anticruelty behavior team.

 

Shark: 1 in 11.5 million, according to George H. Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the University of Florida at Gainesville. Make your saltwater swims even safer by paddling with a group and leaving shiny jewelry on shore.

 

Bear: 1 in 60 million. That said, bear sightings aren’t uncommon, says Glenn Plumb, chief wildlife biologist at the National Park Service. If you see a bear while hiking, don’t run from the animal. Remain watchful and calmly continue on your way, giving the bear at least 150 feet of space. If the bear approaches you, stand your ground, make yourself look as large as possible, create a racket, and throw nonfood objects (such as rocks) to frighten it off.

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