Ah, the long sunny days of summer. Birds are singing, flowers are blooming, veggies and fruits are flourishing, and bacteria is thriving.
This season brings big fun and an equally large potential to get sick with particularly disgusting diseases. Hot and humid temperatures are bacteria’s favorite environment. They’ll infest your food, skin, and innards if you give them a chance.
Air Conditioning: bacterial crud, mold and other nastiness are happy to make their homes in your air conditioning filters. Breathing them in can cause headaches, bronchial and sinus infections, and are a particular issue for people with allergies and asthma. To prevent this festivity, don a nice surgical mask and gloves then clean your AC filter (or replace it) every three months.
Bugs: If you fret when you step foot in the ocean, you should freak out totally when you leave your home. The deadliest animal in the world is lurking right outside of your door. Malaria, one of an assortment of diseases carried by mosquitoes, kills more than 600,000 people a year and sickens over 200 million. Sharks kill just 10 people a year. And then there’s ticks, which can carry the bacterium that causes Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever. You can try to thwart the little buggers by wearing light colored clothing that covers as much of you as possible, using the appropriate insect repellent, skipping the scented grooming products, and making sure to change the water in kiddie pools and bird baths a couple of times a week. Check carefully for ticks after any outdoor adventure, remembering they love to hide in hair and warm, moist areas of the body. For more on ticks, click here.
Food: Picnics, barbeques, street fairs – yay! Stomach aches caused by foodborne pathogens – boo! We tend to get really careless about food preparation when we’re cooking – or eating – outside. The very young, old and anyone with a compromised immune system should avoid food that could have been compromised by improper storage or insufficient cooking. The worst offenders: ground meat that is not thoroughly cooked and eggs. If it’s supposed to be cold, store it in a cooler full of ice, no matter how shady the picnic table may be or how retro-cute your picnic basket is. Educate yourself about food safety here, and remember the #1 Food Rule: If in doubt, throw it out.
Ice Cream: Listeria is an odd bacteria that likes to live in cooler temperatures, and is especially fond of setting up communities in machinery – like the soft-serve ice cream machine. Skip the frosty treats if you are pregnant (Listeria can cause miscarriages) and you may want to ask the owner of the ice cream truck when they last cleaned the equipment. It’s up to you whether you choose to believe whatever answer you get.
Skin fungus: Fungi (Trichophyton) causes athlete’s foot, jock itch and ringworm along with other lovely skin/hair/beard irritations. You get it by coming into contact with surfaces that harbor the fungus (public showers and gyms are fungal playgrounds, as are towels, bedding and socks) or the skin of someone who is infected. You can also infect yourself if you scratch the itch and then touch other parts of your body. Cover your feet to avoid infection at the gym and pool. Wear socks and underwear that absorbs moisture during the sweaty season, and make sure your sneakers are dry. If you often have itchy feet, you might want to apply antifungal powder on your feet, especially during the warmer months.
Swimming Pools: What could possibly harm you when you’re relaxing in a stew of human body fluids? Right. Sweat, urine, fecal matter … no pool is pristine, but some are worse than others (your own personal pool, unsullied by any other human, might be clean depending on your personal habits and bladder control). To make it even better, when all of that stuff comes in contact with chlorine you get chloramine compounds, which is responsible for the eye sting we experience in pools. You may also be swimming with beasties such as the cryptosporidium parasite, which can cause diarrhea and can lurk happily in a chlorinated pool for almost two weeks.
And there’s the Coxsackie virus, a common ailment in summer months which is usually caused by fecal matter leaching out of swimsuits and into swimming pools. Coxsackie can cause hand, foot and mouth disease (HFMD) in children – symptoms include small blisters on the tongue and inner surfaces of the mouth, the palms of the hands and the soles of the feet, often accompanies by fever. Best preventions: don’t drink the water you’re swimming in, choose public pools wisely, drain and then expose backyard kiddie pools to four or five hours of sunshine regularly.
Ocean: If the flesh-eating bacteria doesn’t get you, the sharks and jellyfish will. Oh, wait – that’s only true in Florida. In general, treat any cut or abrasion that you get while swimming in the ocean or walking on the beach with great care, and head to the doctor if the wound gets red, feels warm or is showing signs of infection (puss, for instance). Read the useful shark attack prevention tips here. And if someone does get stung by a jellyfish, don’t feel compelled to urinate on them – a splash of vinegar or seawater is just as effective and far less disgusting.
Poison plants: A mere quarter-ounce of urushiol – the oil in poison ivy plants that irritates skin — is enough to give the entire population of Earth a rash. Your best bet is to learn to identify the plant so that you can avoid it. Remember too that poison ivy’s oil can remain active for at least 5 years on any surfaces that have come into contact with it. Wash contaminated clothing, shoes (including the laces) and pets with soap and hot water. Don’t burn poison ivy or inhale the fumes of the burning plant, unless you want to experience the special hell of an urushiol rash running rampant in your respiratory system.
The Sun: Sunburns are BURNS. They are essentially a wound, and can open the doors to other infections as well as skin cancer. Plus they wrinkle your skin and make it spotty.
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