Ahh, summer. Long, warm days, outdoor activities galore, and—ouch!—bothersome pests, burning sun, and unexpected bumps and bruises (yes, you did have to dive for that volleyball). But don’t sit on the sidelines in fear of mishaps; instead, swing into summer with natural first-aid advice tailored to the season.
At the beach
Sunburn. You’ve likely endured sunburn at least once in your life, but kids and young adults are in the greatest jeopardy of suffering from a burn’s long-term effects. According to a 2011 review published in Pediatrics, at least 25 percent of sun exposure—and up to 80 percent—occurs before age 18, considerably increasing skin cancer risk later in life.
Prevention is, as always, your first defense. Liberally apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against UVB and UVA rays) with an SPF of 30 or higher. Choose one with mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that “block” harmful rays, rather than sunscreens that contain chemicals such as oxybenzone or octinoxate, which can disrupt hormone balance and cause allergic reactions. And remember, no sunscreen is truly waterproof—despite what the label says—so reapply every two hours or after swimming or sweating excessively.
What if you do get sunburned? Aloe vera remains the tried-and-true cooling and anti-inflammatory burn remedy, says Sheila Kingsbury, ND, chair of the department of botanical medicine at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington.
Dab sunburned skin with an aloe-soaked cotton ball at least twice per day, and take cool or lukewarm showers (not scorching hot) to further reduce inflammation. Got a tube of aloe languishing in your medicine cabinet since last year? Toss it. Kingsbury says it’s best to buy a new aloe gel every year and keep it in the refrigerator to maintain its freshness and healing properties.
Also, rub sun-kissed skin with a thick lotion containing antioxidant vitamin E to reduce long-term skin damage, say experts at the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University. Choose an alcohol-free lotion to avoid further irritation.
Jellyfish sting. Although sting severity largely depends on the species, tentacles from sea nettles, one of the most common and least dangerous jellyfish found on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, cause an irritating rash and a searing, throbbing sensation. Jellyfish stings can also trigger allergic reactions—especially in people sensitive to bee stings.
“Most types of jellyfish stings respond well to vinegar,” Kingsbury says. According to a study in The Medical Journal of Australia, vinegar’s acetic acid prevents the further release of microscopic nematocysts—venom-filled structures on tentacles. Remove any tentacles, and then soak the affected area in a 1:1 white vinegar–seawater solution for 30 minutes. (If no vinegar is handy, just use seawater.) Don’t rinse in fresh water; the pH change from seawater to fresh water hastens venom release. Resist the urge to rub the sting with a towel—that’s also likely to discharge more venom. And despite the urban legend, fresh urine won’t help a jellyfish sting and may make it worse.
Most important, if you or a friend suffers a jellyfish sting, watch carefully for anaphylactic symptoms like shortness of breath, abdominal pain, muscle cramps, hives, or vomiting. If any of these occur, call 911 or head to the hospital.
At the park
Bee sting. Given bees’ and people’s affection for all things sweet and sticky (s’mores anyone?), be prepared to deal with possible stings on your next picnic or campout.
When a bee stings you or your buddy, check to see if the stinger is lodged in the skin. Rather than remove it with tweezers—which may squeeze more venom into the site—dislodge the stinger by sliding a straight-edged object such as a credit card across the skin. Wash the area thoroughly with soap and water. Kingsbury recommends making a thick paste of baking soda and water; then cover the sting with the mixture to neutralize the bee’s toxins. After 10–15 minutes, wash off the dried mixture with warm water.
For pain, apply ice for 10 minutes and then remove it for 10 minutes, repeating the process for an hour. And remember, shortness of breath or facial swelling may indicate an allergic reaction, so treat the situation as an emergency.
Heat rash. Often occurring in children and infants, heat rash’s telltale signs include hundreds of tiny red bumps on the abdomen, arms, neck, or back. Heat rash occurs when sweat is unable to evaporate and becomes trapped under sweat glands; hot, humid weather, strenuous exercise, or constrictive clothing can make it worse. Natural bacteria and yeast on the skin exacerbate heat rash, making the condition uncomfortable and itchy. It’s also a possible indicator of impending heat exhaustion, dehydration, and heat stroke. (See: Is It Heat Exhaustion?)
To treat heat rash, first move the affected person to a shady or air-conditioned area, and have him sip cool water. At home, mix 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar in 1 cup cold water; dip a washcloth into it and thoroughly but gently wipe down the irritated area. “The apple cider vinegar will reset the pH balance of the skin and kill bacteria, while the cool water will calm down the rash,” Kingsbury adds. Change into loose clothing, too.
For the trail
Poison ivy. If you recite “leaves of three, let them be,” spotting poison ivy is easy enough. But you can’t always avoid this common, creeping plant, and when it contacts skin, oil called urushiol—stored in the leaves, stems, and roots—causes a reaction in 80 percent to 90 percent of people. “If you know your skin has been in contact with poison ivy, wash the area right away with soap and warm water,” says Kingsbury. Also remove any clothing that touched the plant.
Then dab lavender oil onto the affected area two to three times per day for a week. “Lavender oil is both antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, so it reduces itch,” says Kingsbury. Though research is inconclusive, herbalists also suggest jewelweed—a plant that usually grows near poison ivy—to alleviate symptoms. Look for natural soaps or salves that contain jewelweed and apply topically. Finally, one study found that poison ivy symptoms improved when a tincture of gumweed, a yellow-flowered plant found in the Rocky Mountains and across the Pacific Northwest, was directly applied to the rash.
Muscle pulls and soreness. During summer months, you probably bike, run, hike, and swim with abandon—and then pay for it with muscle flare-ups and strains. Muscle soreness is not only painful, but also prevents you from exercising more—and who needs that during the sunniest time of the year?
One classic remedy: Epsom salts. Made from magnesium sulfate, this affordable first-aid staple reduces swelling, relaxes muscles, and accelerates muscle recovery. A University of Birmingham study showed that as you bathe in Epsom salts, your skin absorbs therapeutic levels of magnesium, which may reduce inflammation. To ease aches, dissolve 1 cup Epsom salts into a standard-size bath full of warm water, and soak for 20 minutes. Repeat as needed, up to three times per week.
Made from a daisylike flower, arnica cream can soothe bruises or inflammation, says Karen Barnes, ND, owner of the Burlington Naturopathic and Wellness Clinic in Ontario and author of Naturopathic First Aid (CCNM, 2004). As long as there is no open wound (you want to avoid getting arnica into the bloodstream), rub arnica as a cream or oil onto sore muscles, sprains, or bruises.
Also try ginger. Research indicates that taking 2 grams daily of raw ginger supplements reduces pain from post-exercise muscle injury by more than 23 percent in the first 24 hours.