Summertime is fun time filled with picnics, barbeques, clambakes, camping and exercising in the heat and humidity. Although summertime is a great time to enjoy the great outdoors and brings much needed fun and sun that are important for our physical and mental health, we should keep in mind some simple measures to stay healthy and avoid illness.
1. Be Mindful of the foods that you eat at an outdoor party.
One way that we can easily get sick is to unknowingly consume spoiled food at a party. How do you know? Unfortunately, you do not until hours after you have consumed the spoiled food. On a hot sunny day the warmth and humidity allows bacteria to thrive on food. There are at least 76 million cases of food-borne illness in the U.S. each year, although the CDC suspects that there are 135 million cases annually. Foods at picnics are the most common culprits since they are often prepared in advance and are transported for pot-luck events. The most common sources of food-borne illness are dairy-based salads (potato, macaroni etc.), which are vulnerable to staph infections, and meat that has been poorly refrigerated or undercooked. The most common bacteria found in picnic barbecue meats that cause illness are Salmonella (poultry) and Campylobacter (red meat). Common symptoms are diarrhea and vomiting that tend to be self-limited. However, long-term digestive problems such as the irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may result. IBS afflicts 10-15% of the US population and 1 in every 4 patients acquires their illness following a gastrointestinal infection.
Tip: When you are the cook keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Hot foods should be kept at 140 degrees or warmer. Cold foods should be kept at 40 degrees or colder. When you are the guest be observant of how long the foods were left out prior to cooking or serving. Feel the temperature of the serving plate or bowl for cold foods. On a hot sunny day pass on dairy-based salads. As a rule of thumb, perishable foods should not be kept at room temperature for longer than two hours. On a hot sunny day this could be a short as 30 minutes to an hour before appreciable bacteria become a health hazard. When in doubt, pass it up.
2. Drink water only from a public or commercial source.
When going on a camping trip bring bottled water. Do not drink surface water from a creek, stream or spring. Lack of processing and filtration can allow unwanted microorganisms to find a home in your gut and cause illness. An example of a microbe that harbors in unprocessed water is the parasite Giardia lamblia. Infestation by this protozoan can cause a range of symptomatology that brings misery. I see patients in my clinic who acquire this parasite from drinking “pure” spring water from a stream and many have been ill for years.
Tip: Do not drink untreated surface water or from that spring just is down the road; you are putting your health at risk. When camping or hiking bring your own water–bottled water or in a water bottle from a public source.
3. Stay hydrated and limit exercising in the heat and humidity.
Summer is a perfect season to enjoy outdoor activities such as tennis, soccer, basketball, running, biking and hiking. Fresh air, sunshine, and exercise have important health benefits, but excess heat and humidity are potentially hazardous to your well-being. Thus, you need to consider the heat index when planning outdoor activities. As the heat index rises so do your health risks, because your body is also heating up and becoming dehydrated. When the heat index is over 105 degrees Fahrenheit you run the risk of even heat exhaustion or, even more life-threatening, heatstroke.
Tip: Stay hydrated and cool by drinking plenty of water or an electrolyte rich sports drink before and after your workouts. Best to carry a water bottle at all times. When the heat index is high, don’t plan to do outdoor activities in the middle of the day (12 noon to 4 PM). Instead, work out early in the morning or in the evening when the sun has set.
Summertime brings many fun activities and memories so why not enjoy the good weather while it lasts. Being mindful of a few simple facts can help make it both enjoyable and safe. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure.
To your good health.
Dr. Gerry Mullin