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‘Tis the season for sun and surf – as well as jellyfish stings, sunburns, and mosquito bites. (Photo: Flickr/Piervincenzo Madeo)
Summer is the season of vitamin D, ocean swims, and outdoor strolls … and sunburns, jellyfish stings, and mosquito bites. Although the warmer months are mostly incredible, the vacation of your dreams can quickly turn into a nightmare if you don’t know how to handle the health hurdles that may come your way. Below, we answer some of your most burning summer health questions — so you can get back to building sandcastles and riding the waves.
Is peeing in the pool really all that bad?
Peeing in the pool is gross, sure — but is it bad for health? (Photo: Flickr/Wade Morgen)
There’s no chemical that will change color — and blow your spot — if you pee in the pool. And doing so is pretty common: Nearly one in five American admits to relieving themselves in a swimming pool, according to a recent Water Quality and Healthy Council survey.
But just because a lot of people cop to it, doesn’t mean you should do it, too, says Ernest R. Blatchley III, PhD, a professor of environmental and ecological engineering at Purdue University. In a 2014 study, published in Environmental Science & Technology, he and co-investigators found that uric acid — one of the primary chemicals in urine — reacts with chlorine to generate potentially hazardous chemicals. “Chlorine has the ability to kill microorganisms,” Blatchley tells Yahoo Health, “but it doesn’t ‘kill’ any chemicals — it has the ability to alter them.
One such uric acid-chlorine byproduct, cyanogen chloride, “has been used as a chemical warfare agent,” Blatchley says. Although this dangerous chemical usually breaks down quickly after it’s formed, thanks to the remaining chlorine in the pool, that may not happen if the chlorine has been severely depleted — for instance, if there’s a large crowd of swimmers, many of whom are peeing in the pool, causing the disinfectant level to drop.
Another worrisome chemical that forms when uric acid reacts with chlorine is trichloramine — which has been linked to a number of respiratory ailments, including asthma, says Blatchley. “You’re probably familiar with the odor around swimming pools. You may have identified that odor as being chlorine,” he says. “What you’re more likely smelling is trichloramine.”
As a volatile chemical, trichloramine easily transfers from the liquid phase to the gas phase, especially if lots of people are splashing in the water. The result? The air around the pool becomes contaminated — meaning swimmers are then inhaling a chemical with the potential to do respiratory damage.
Bottom line: If you wouldn’t want to swim in somebody else’s urine, don’t make everybody else swim in yours. Blatchley compares it to the problem of secondhand smoke: “If you came across one person who smoked, you would probably have trouble quantifying the [health] effect. But if you encounter a lot of secondhand smoke, then the effect starts to become relevant.” So instead of assuming you’re the only mischievous swimmer, assume everyone is — and be the first one to hit the ladder and head to the toilet.
Will a sunburn fade into a tan?
That tan is actually your skin cells’ DNA being damaged! (Photo credit: Corbis/Drew Myers)
Bad news: Your lobster-like complexion won’t miraculously turn into a golden glow. “A burn is nothing more than the skin’s response to DNA damage of the skin cells,” says Dan Wasserman, MD, a dermatologist in Naples, Florida. “The body is shunting blood to the [skin] to fix and repair it. You have a fire, and the redness is the fire department.”
So why do you sometimes go to bed with a burn and seemingly wake up with a tan? The explanation: The same type of ultraviolet radiation — UVB rays — that sets your skin on fire is also behind your bronzing. “What gave you the burn also gave you the tan,” Wasserman tells Yahoo Health. “But it wasn’t the burn that gave you the tan.”
More specifically, UVB rays are responsible for a type of tanning called delayed pigment darkening. “This usually begins two days after the exposure and lasts 10 to 14 days,” Wasserman says. That means the healing of your sunburn may happen to coincide with the deepening of your tan. (UVA rays create “immediate pigment darkening,” so you may already have some color before the delayed darkening occurs.)
What exactly is a tan, then, if not a faded-out sunburn? When your skin cells’ DNA is damaged, your body attempts to protect itself by sending pigment to shroud the nucleus of the cell, where the genetic material is housed, says Wasserman. “That acts like an umbrella to the DNA of the cell.” He compares a tan to a callus — an attempt to shield the body from further trauma. Unfortunately, it’s not a very effective one. “It’s not good protection,” he says. “A tan is like an SPF of 2.”
That means the oft-repeated warning still applies: There’s no such thing as a healthy tan. “You can’t get a tan unless you’ve been damaged,” Wasserman says. “I always tell my patients it’s the equivalent of a pre-cancerous glow. A tan is a smoker’s cough. A tan is like being jaundiced if you’re an alcoholic. Drinking for the liver, drugs for the brain, smoke for the lungs, and sun for the skin — it’s all the same.”
Does peeing on a jellyfish sting really relieve the pain?
Is urine really the answer? (Photo credit: Getty Images/Pete Karas)
It takes a jellyfish stinger just one microsecond — that’s .000001 seconds — to strike its target, according to the National Science Foundation. And when that target is you, we’re guessing you’ll be running (almost) as quickly out of the surf with a tentacle tangled around your leg.
What’s your next move? If you’ve ever seen the episode of Friends where Monica gets stung, you may be tempted to try peeing on your wound. But, the truth is, a quick urine rinse won’t take the sting out of a run-in with a jellyfish — in fact, it may only make it worse (and not just because you’re now soaked in someone else’s urine), says Wasserman.
Urine is often diluted, so it’s more similar to freshwater than saltwater. Why that’s a problem: Soaking the site with freshwater alters the concentration of salt inside and outside the tentacles’ stinging cells clinging to your skin. That could cause the nematocysts — the capsules where the venom is housed — to burst, says Wasserman. In other words, urine may make a minor sting a miserable one.
So instead of asking your beach buddy to drop his drawers, follow these steps instead: If the jellyfish is clear and stung you underwater (meaning it’s likely a box jellyfish), douse it with vinegar, suggests Craig Thomas, MD, an emergency physician in Hawaii and co-author of All Stings Considered. Although this won’t quell the pain, it will inactivate any lingering nematocysts, so they can’t release any more venom, he says. Vinegar that contains 4 to 6 percent acetic acid, applied to the area for 30 seconds, is best, according to a 2013 study review in the journal Marine Drugs.
A word of caution: Vinegar actually causes some species to discharge more venom, so if the tentacle is colored, skip this step. (Consider asking the locals what’s lurking in the water beforehand, so if you get stung, you have a better chance of knowing what type of jellyfish it was.)
Next, untangle the tentacle — and make swift work of it. “Officially, you should take precautions — wear gloves, use something to lift it off,” Thomas says. “But time is crucial. I’ve been stung quite a few times, and I’ll tell you what I do: I grab one end and lift it off.” The pads of your fingers are probably thick enough to protect you, he says, but if you’re worried, a pair of tweezers (if you happen to have them) or even a credit card to scrape it off should do the trick. Finally, rinse off the area with a bucket of saltwater to remove any nematocysts still clinging to your skin.
A hot water soak may help ease the pain, but as long as it was a garden-variety jellyfish that stung you, the burning will probably subside on its own in 20 minutes or so, says Thomas. “[The pain] approaches a bee sting, but more spread out,” he says.
Why does blonde hair turn green in the pool?
And how do you save your locks from turning a different hue? (Photo credit: Stocksy/Jovana Rikalo)
Chlorine is commonly assumed to be the culprit behind Kermit-colored hair. But the truth is, another compound designed to keep the pool clean may actually be what’s turning your hair green.
Copper sulfate is often added to swimming pools to combat algae, according to the authors of a 2014 case study about a 15-year-old girl whose blonde hair was turning progressively green. “Copper compounds in the water bind to the protein on the surface of the hair shaft and deposit their color,” the researchers explain. (This can also occur if your home has new copper piping.)
Although blonde hair is the most likely shade to go green, “it happens to other colors also,” says Steve Pullan, a trichologist at the Philip Kingsley hair clinic in New York City. “You just don’t notice it as much.” As a hair scientist, he sees green-haired goddesses all summer long — and has noticed a trend among these clients: They’ve often bleached their tresses.
Related: 9 Best Foods for Healthy Hair
“Even natural hair can become green,” Pullan tells Yahoo Health. But coloring your hair — especially when bleach is involved — makes the shaft of each strand more porous, allowing your locks to absorb the pool chemicals more easily. In fact, in a study called “The Green Hair Problem,” conducted way back in 1979, researchers found that hair treated with peroxide or damaged by the sun was more likely to suck up copper.
To shield your strands, soak them with fresh water before diving into the pool. That way, “the hair is already wet, like a sponge,” says Pullan. The result? It’s less likely to absorb the copper-tinged pool water. Even better, wet your hair and coat it with conditioner before swimming. Pullan recommends Philip Kingsley’s Swimcap Cream, originally developed for the U.S. Olympic synchronized swimming team — it contains sunscreen to shield your hair from UV rays, while also creating a protective barrier against copper. Afterward, rinse off in the pool shower to eliminate any lingering chemicals.
Still have a green-hair mishap? You may be able to mask the funky hue with a shampoo formulated to prevent gray and blonde hair from going brassy, says Pullan. In addition, “we deep-condition to lift out impurities and cleanse the scalp very thoroughly,” he says. You can also try a chelating shampoo — that is, one capable of stripping away mineral-build-up — such as Redken Hair Cleansing Cream Shampoo.
How can I relieve an itchy mosquito bite (without scratching)?
Mosquitoes: The scourge of summer! (Photo: Flickr/John Tann)
A mosquito touches down on your arm, and next thing you know, there’s that telltale red bump — and boy is it unbearably itchy.
Scratching is nothing more than a distraction — a pleasurable way to direct your attention to something other than the itch that’s annoying you. “You’re not accomplishing anything medically,” says Wasserman.
Anything positive, that is.
What you are doing: potentially damaging the skin you’re scratching. “You can actually [create] permanent changes in your skin,” Wasserman explains. If you break the skin, you may be left with a scar or something called a dermatofibroma. These firm little growths — or what Wasserman refers to as “scar balls” — are most likely to crop up in areas below the knee, such as your ankle and the lower part of your shin. (And, really, who hasn’t gotten a pesky ankle bite while wearing flip-flips?)
You also face the risk of post-inflammatory hyperpigmentation, which is essentially a brown spot that can occur when you injure your skin through excessive scratching, says Wasserman. The worst potential outcome: You end up with an infection, since “one of the dirtiest places on our body is our fingernails,” he says.
Now that we’ve established that scratching isn’t the best solution — is there another quick route to relief, without the potential for permanent damage? Yes, and it’s another form of distraction: slapping the bite. This is a noxious stimuli — i.e. one that causes a little pain — which is more effective at taking your mind off your misery than an innocuous stimuli, such as tickling the site with a feather. “The nerve stimulation will actually cause a shock or pain,” Wasserman explains. “[This] kind of overwhelms the itch.” In other words, the shock of slapping yourself drowns out the irritation of itching.
Of course, the resulting relief will only last so long. So if you’re able to access a pharmacy, dose up on Benadryl or Claritin, says Wasserman. And if your itching requires something stronger, ask your doctor for a high-potency steroid cream.
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