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City of Banjul
Sunday, May 19, 2024

Sun safety: Protecting against harmful effects

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By Sharon Praise C. Uyamadu
Medical student

In recent days, there has been a notable increase in both heat and aridity, making the weather quite uncomfortable. Presently, The Gambia ranks among the top 10 hottest countries globally- with afternoon temperatures soaring as high as 41°C in regions such as the Kombo area, and even higher figures in provinces. These fluctuations are attributable to the effects of climate change.

These temperature fluctuations have a significant impact on our health and well-being. It is important to prioritize our skin and overall health during these times. Before delving into strategies for protecting oneself from these effects, let’s first discuss the harmful effects of the sun.

Effects of sun exposure on the skin

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We are aware of the sun’s role as a significant source of vitamin D, but the sun also emits rays known as Ultraviolet Rays (UV rays), categorized into three types: UVA, UVB, and UVC.

UVA: With the longest wavelength, UVA rays penetrate deeply into the skin, contributing to premature aging and wrinkling.

UVB: With a shorter wavelength than UVA, UVB rays primarily affect the skin’s top surface, leading to tanning, and sunburn (characterized by redness, pain, and inflammation of the skin), and since it is a known carcinogen, it can cause various types of skin cancers, including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.

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UVC: This type has the shortest wavelength and does not reach the Earth’s surface, thus posing no harm.

UVA and UVB are of the greatest concern and can cause the most damage to our skin. Other negative effects of the sun on our skin are:

·           Uneven pigmentation: Sun exposure can cause uneven skin pigmentation, leading to dark spots, freckles, and melasma.

·           Degradation of collagen and elastin: UV radiation can break down collagen and elastin fibers in the skin, leading to loss of elasticity and firmness, and contributing to sagging and wrinkling.

Effects of sun exposure on body systems

·           Dehydration: High temperatures lead to excessive sweating, which results in dehydration if fluids are not adequately replenished. Dehydration can strain vital organs of the body such as the heart, kidneys, brain, etc.

·           Heat exhaustion and heat stroke: Prolonged exposure to heat can lead to heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and heatstroke. Heat exhaustion causes symptoms such as heavy sweating, weakness, dizziness, and nausea, while heatstroke is a more severe and dangerous condition characterized by a high body temperature, confusion, loss of consciousness, and organ damage.

·           Eye damage: Exposure to UV radiation can also harm the eyes, leading to conditions such as cataracts, macular degeneration, and photokeratitis (sunburn of the cornea).

·           Suppression of immune system: UV radiation can suppress the immune system, making the skin more vulnerable to infections and diseases.

·           Worsening of heart and respiratory conditions: Heat can exacerbate pre-existing heart and lung conditions such as heart disease, hypertension, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). High temperatures can increase the workload on the heart and make breathing more difficult for individuals with respiratory conditions.

·           Air quality: Heat can worsen air quality by increasing the formation of ground-level ozone and air pollutants, which can exacerbate respiratory problems and cardiovascular conditions as well.

·           Heat-related edema: Sometimes, Heat can cause fluid retention and swelling, particularly in the legs and ankles.

·           Cognitive impairment: High temperatures can also impair cognitive function, including memory, attention, and decision-making abilities. Research has shown that heat exposure can lead to slower reaction times and decreased cognitive performance.

·           Increased risk of stroke: Heatwaves are associated with an increased risk of stroke, which occurs when the blood supply to the brain is interrupted. High temperatures can cause blood vessels to dilate, increase blood pressure, and make blood more prone to clotting, all of which can contribute to stroke risk.

·           Worsening of neurological conditions: Heat can exacerbate symptoms in individuals with pre-existing neurological conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS), Parkinson’s disease, and epilepsy. High temperatures can also increase inflammation, worsen fatigue, and trigger seizures in susceptible individuals.

·           Sleep disturbances: Hot weather disrupts sleep patterns and leads to insomnia, which can affect cognitive function and mood. Lack of sleep impairs memory, concentration, and decision-making abilities.

·           Mental health effects: Heatwaves have psychological effects, including increased stress, anxiety, and irritability. Research suggests that exposure to high temperatures may also be associated with an increased risk of mood disorders like depression.

How to protect yourself

1.         Hydration: The importance of staying hydrated cannot be emphasized enough. It is important to consume ample water to replace the fluids lost through sweating and It is not advisable to wait until thirst kicks in; instead, make a habit of drinking water consistently, even when you do not feel thirsty, because waiting until you are thirsty could indicate dehydration has already begun.

2.         Sunscreen: It’s a common misconception that individuals with dark skin do not need sunscreen, but this is untrue. Everyone, regardless of skin tone, requires sun protection. Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least SPF 30 to all exposed areas, including the face, neck, ears, and hands. Remember to reapply every two hours, or more frequently if you are sweating heavily.

3.         Protective clothing: Wear lightweight, loose-fitting clothing that covers as much skin as possible. Opt for tightly woven fabrics or clothing as well as bright-colored clothing as they reflect most of the visible wavelengths which, in turn, absorbs less heat.

4.         Hat and sunglasses: Wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face, neck, and ears. Additionally, wear sunglasses to shield your eyes from harmful UV rays.

5.         Seek shade: Limit your time in direct sunlight, especially during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Seek shade under trees or umbrellas when outdoors.

6.         Cooling measures: Take cool showers to lower your body temperature during hot weather and use fans or air conditioning indoors to stay cool.

7.         Limit outdoor activities: Reduce outdoor activities, especially strenuous exercise, during the hottest parts of the day. Schedule outdoor activities for the early morning evenings when temperatures are cooler

8.         Check on vulnerable individuals: Keep an eye on children, the elderly, and those with chronic health conditions during hot weather. Ensure they stay hydrated and cool, and seek medical attention if necessary.

In summary, protecting yourself from the sun is crucial for staying healthy. Follow these tips: wear sunscreen, cover up with clothing, find shade, and drink plenty of water. Remember, everyone needs sun protection, no matter their skin tone. By taking these steps, you can reduce the risk of sunburn and skin damage. So, stay cool and soak in the sun responsibly. Your body will thank you.

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