Doctor’s orders: Go outside and live it up, but be smart about it

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Aah, summer.

It’s the time to get outside and enjoy nature. Grill some burgers, soak up some sun, take a hike in the woods.

It’s also the time to be aware of health risks associated with summer fun.

Doctors are seeing more cases of E. coli, a dangerous bacterium, from undercooked hamburgers and more sickness from ozone pollution.

They are seeing an increase in skin cancer in Maine, where the rate is among the fastest-growing in the nation. And there’s a rising threat of Lyme disease and West Nile virus from ticks and mosquitoes.

You can still eat grilled burgers, enjoy the beach and take to the forest. As long as you follow doctor’s orders.

Ozone is serious threat

On a recent 90-degree day, Dr. Dora Mills looked out her office window at noon and saw people jogging.

“I thought, ‘What are they thinking?'”

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection had issued an ozone alert that day, meaning air pollution was at a dangerous level and could cause breathing difficulties.

During the same hot spell in late June, Mills’ son was in a baseball camp where he played outside from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. with only a few breaks.

That wasn’t healthy, said Mills, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control. Kids in sports or recreation programs ought to stop and get out of the sun every half-hour and rest for five minutes, she said.

“I don’t care if it’s the middle of the game.”

On hot days when there are ozone alerts, everyone should be concerned about air pollution, Mills said. No one should be out jogging unless it’s at 5 a.m. before the air has warmed.

Just as Mainers take precautions during winter storms, they need to take ozone warnings more seriously, Mills said. Even healthy lungs can suffer from wheezing or asthmalike attacks if physical activity is not curtailed.

People without air conditioning need to rest often and drink lots of water. When Mills was a Farmington pediatrician she recommended that parents without air conditioning take their young children to stores for an hour to cool off.

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Skin cancer on the rise

Maine has among the highest rate of skin cancer in the country, Mills said.

In the past 20 years skin cancer has increased threefold in Maine – making it the most common cancer in the state – and death rates from melanoma are also on the rise, Mills said.

She said females are more likely to tan and to get skin cancer than males. People in southern states with year-round sun are used to protecting themselves and less likely to stay in the sun for long periods of time. Some Mainers get intense exposure in the summer and don’t use cover with clothing or sunblock. Only 70 percent of Mainers use protective measures, Mills said.

She said global warming has changed the Earth’s atmosphere, making the sun’s rays more harmful.

The more sunburns you get, the higher your chances of getting skin cancer, especially among young people. Sunburns at an early age increase the risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. It is sometimes life-threatening but if treated in its early stages, the chances of recovery are very good.

Mills recommends everyone use sunblock, at least 30 SPF (sun-protection factor), and wear long sleeves and hats when out in the sun more than a half-hour. “It’s important to cover up.”

Deer ticks, West Nile birds

Lyme disease, which is contracted from tiny deer ticks, has increased in Maine in the past 10 years, from fewer than 100 cases to more than 350, Mills said.

Two-thirds of those cases originated in coastal Cumberland and York counties. Others were in the Kennebec Valley, where the ticks are “moving up river valleys along with the deer.”

There have been no human cases of West Nile virus, but it has been detected in birds and mosquitoes, Mills said.

To prevent ticks and infected mosquitoes from attacking you, she recommends following the three Cs: clean up, cover up and check daily.

Empty standing water where mosquitoes may breed and clean up leaf litter where ticks may live. Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants, and use a DEET-containing insect repellent. After you’ve been outside, check your skin and your children’s skin for ticks.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection carried by deer ticks, but it isn’t transmitted when ticks are removed within 24 to 36 hours, Mills said.

Pink burger: Don’t eat it

Maine gets a couple dozen reported cases of E. coli every year, but most happen in the summer months, as soon as grills are hauled out and fired up, Mills said.

She cautioned backyard chefs to make sure all fish, chicken and meat is thoroughly cooked. The most common E. coli source is the undercooked hamburger. Eat only well-done burgers, Mills said. If it’s red or even pink in the middle, “Don’t eat it!” she said.

Ground beef carries the highest risk for E. coli because hamburger is made from many different cows and the bacteria can be spread that way, Mills said.

E. coli can cause days or weeks of sickness including cramps and bloody diarrhea. Healthy people typically overcome E. coli pretty well, but it can be fatal to the young and old, Mills said.

Summer threats

Ozone: When the state issues an ozone alert, no jogging in the heat of the day. If you’re playing or working outdoors, get out of the sun every half hour and rest. Drink plenty of liquids.

Sunburn: Leading cause of skin cancer, which is on the rise in Maine. Use sunblock (at least 30 SPF) and cover up – hats, long sleeves – if you’re out for more than a half hour.

E. coli: Grilling? Make sure all meat is thoroughly cooked. If not, it can give you a nasty bacterial infection. Be especially careful with ground beef.

Ticks: Ick. If you’re out in the woods, wear DEET repellent and cover your skin as much as possible. Check for ticks afterward. Deer ticks cause Lyme disease, which can be debilitating.

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