On this blog recently, we’ve been celebrating the impending arrival of ‘Barbie Season’. And with part of the country experiencing its hottest September in 30 years and daylight savings having kicked in, it seems we will have to wait no longer. However, it would be remiss of us not to point out the very serious dangers that come along with barbie season. They are silent killers. They can attack over many years or in a matter of hours and often only let you know when it is too late. They are skin cancer and heat stroke.
With global temperatures rising and extreme weather conditions becoming more and more prevalent (15 of the last 16 years have been the hottest on record1), it is more important than ever that we remain prudent in protecting ourselves against the dangers of the sun. So when you’re outside this summer, whether cooking up a few snags or playing backyard cricket on a tummy full of steaks, keep the following in mind.
Over the last twenty years, Australians have made enormous progress in terms of raising awareness about skin cancer and in learning to protect ourselves. Regardless, we still have the highest rate of skin cancer in the world and two out of three of us will develop some form of it in our lifetime2.
- Skin cancer is generally caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. In 95 – 99% of cases, the UV source is the sun, although solarium tanning machines also pose a significant risk.
- UV radiation damages skin cells permanently and they can later develop into melanoma or non-melanoma (typically basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma) cancers.
Note: While non-melanoma cancers are less deadly, they still require treatment. The cause, and thus preventative measures, related to melanoma and non-melanoma cancers are generally the same.
- An individual’s risk of skin cancer is directly related to six factors:
○ Skin Type: Some people’s skin is more sensitive to UV radiation, particularly fair skin. In saying that, anyone can get skin cancer (remember, the dark-skinned Bob Marley died from it), so everyone should protect themselves.
○ Childhood Tanning / Sunburning: A lot of UV exposure before the age of 15 greatly allows the damaged cells longer to develop into skin cancer and thus, increases the risk.
○ UV Exposure: The damage to skin cells caused by the sun adds up over time. As such, even if you’re not getting burnt by the sun, the more time you spend exposed to it, the greater the risk.
○ History: Those with a family history of melanoma (i.e. two or more close relatives affected) are at an increased risk.
○ Age: Research suggests that although skin cells are often damaged during childhood, sun exposure during adulthood may be what triggers the cells to become cancerous. Melanoma is most common in those aged 50 years and above.
○ Mole Count: Those with a large number of moles (i.e. 10+ on their arms and 100+ on their entire body) have an increased risk.
The most effective prevention measures obviously involve limiting your exposure to UV radiation. This means you should do the following:
- Avoid exposure to the sun on days when UV levels are at their most intense, particularly in the middle of the day. Refer to the SunSmart UV Alert tool for an indication of the UV levels in your part of the country: http://www.bom.gov.au/australia/uv/index.shtml
- If out in the sun, protect your skin with a hat that covers the head, neck and ears. Wear protective clothing such as a long-sleeve shirt and sunnies.
- If swimming, wear a rash vest.
- Apply a 30+ sunscreen and remember to keep reapplying throughout the day.
- Don’t use tanning salons.
What To Look Out For
The difficult thing about identifying skin cancers is that they don’t all look the same and often they don’t present any symptoms at all. It’s important that you get to know your skin, so that you can detect any changes. Look out for spots on the skin that are different to other spots, moles or freckles that have changed in size, shape or colour, or sores that will not heal.
If you notice any of the above, or if you are in a high-risk category based on the risk factors above, visit your GP or a dermatologist.
Much like skin cancer, the damage caused by heat stroke can creep up on you and let you know about it only when it’s all too late. The difference is that the time involved is mere hours, not years. Another difference is that since skin cancer is such a big killer, the dangers of heat stroke tend to fly under the radar. As a result, most people are not aware of the potential damage it can cause, the warning signs and the preventative measures that should be taken.
Heat stroke occurs when the body’s natural cooling system is overloaded and its temperature exceeds about 40ºC. The result is a shutdown of the body’s vital organs and possible death.
While the elderly, young babies and children, pregnant and nursing mothers, and people who are physically unwell are most at risk; heat stroke can affect anyone who is exposed to a very hot, dry environment. Standing over a BBQ on a hot summers day fits the description perfectly.
Unless you find yourself stuck in the desert without any water, preventing heat stroke is fairly simple and requires only a few common sense precautions:
- Try to avoid working, exercising, or in our case barbecuing, while exposed to the sun during the hottest time of the day.
- Assist your natural cooling system by wearing loose fitting clothing that will allow sweat to evaporate from your skin.
- Slip, slop, slap!
- Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water (not more beer!).
- Avoid spending too much time in enclosed spaces without sufficient air flow.
- Never leave children (or pets) in cars. Even on cool days.
What To Look Out For & What To Do
While avoiding heat stroke is fairly simple, it is also fairly simple to forget to take the above precautions and have heat stroke creep up on you. That’s why it is important to be able to recognise the early warning signs and symptoms of heat stroke in yourself and others:
Warning Signs & Heat Stroke Symptoms
- Muscle cramps.
- Rapid heart rate.
- Very high body temperature.
- Dry, swollen tongue.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Dry skin with a lack of sweating despite high temperature.
- Dizziness and confusion.
- Fitting, collapse and unconsciousness.
If you notice these symptoms in yourself or anyone else, your first priority should be to relocate the patient to a cool environment and seek medical advice. Never forget: heat stroke is a medical emergency and is potentially fatal.
Prevention is the Best Medicine
Having read this, you’ve armed yourself with the best possible medicine against skin cancer and heat stroke: education. So this summer, by all means enjoy barbecuing and the associated outdoor activities you love, but don’t die for them.
Be sensible. Be safe. Use prevention as your first line of defence and encourage others to do the same.
NOTE: We are not medical experts. The above information is a guide only and has been taken from a range of sources. For more comprehensive information and advice relating to skin cancer and heat stroke, contact your local GP or medical specialist.
1. Data provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (US).
2. Taken from Cancer Council NSW website.