Your Guide to the Great Outdoors

Tips from local professionals to avoid summer ailments

BY JOANN PETASCHNICK

Summer’s here and the time might be right for dancing in the streets, but be sure you’re wearing sunscreen and you’ve taken your antihistamine. The long and lovely days of summer can bring allergies, skin damage and other ailments. This summer don’t let them rule your world. Take some tips from our experts.

Seasonal Allergies
If you suffer from seasonal allergies, also known as hay fever and allergic rhinitis, they can make your life miserable, interfering with outdoor activities and keeping you from getting enough rest at night. Completely eliminating exposure to seasonal allergens is probably impossible, but Dr. John Basich of Allergy & Asthma Centers SC in Milwaukee says you can limit your exposure and reduce your symptoms.

“Tree pollen usually appears first, into the month of March, while grass pollen comes later in May. Ragweed season is at the end of July through the first frost,” says Basich. He recommends staying indoors in high-allergen times, if possible, as well as keeping windows closed and the air conditioning on.

“Allergen levels are highest in the early morning until about 9 a.m. If you can plan your activities for a little later, you are going to avoid some problems. People who must be outside can wear a face mask to filter out pollen and mold,” says Basich.

Sleep problems are common in people with allergic rhinitis. Research shows that sleep is dramatically impaired by allergic symptoms and that the degree of impairment is related to the severity of those symptoms. Sleeping with open windows can allow allergens to blow into your bedroom, which could cause you to wake up feeling even worse. Using the air conditioner is a better option during high allergen times.

While there is no miracle product that can cure allergies, many can be successfully
treated by over-the-counter drugs. “You can take oral antihistamines to help relieve sneezing, runny nose and watery eyes. Corticosteroid nasal sprays and decongestants can provide temporary relief from nasal stuffiness if you take them on a regular basis,” says Basich.  

For some people, allergy shots (allergen immunotherapy) can be a good option. Over time, these injections reduce the immune system’s reaction that causes symptoms. “The shots are given over a period of about a year and it takes three to six months for them to become effective. They don’t work for everyone. If three people are given the shots, two of the three may stay better for years, but the third person doesn’t get relief.  If effective, they should last two years or more,” says Basich.  

Skin Care
As you expose more skin to the elements, you need protection from those rays. The number one thing to remember is sun protection, says Dr. Erik Alexander, a board-certified dermatologist.

“Skin cancer is at epidemic proportions. At least one in five people will get a skin cancer in their lifetime. The two most common types are basal cell and squamous cell cancer. They tend to be slow growing and don’t often spread. The more severe type is melanoma. Fortunately, it’s a little less common, but it is something we are seeing more of,” says Alexander.  

Various risk factors affect the possibility of a skin cancer diagnosis, but the only modifiable risk factor is sun exposure. “It’s vital over the summertime that you are protecting yourself with a good sunscreen,” says Alexander.

It isn’t enough to just apply sunscreen. You must apply enough and apply frequently. Studies indicate that most people don’t apply nearly enough daylight protection as they should – some studies recommend using about a shot glass full of sunscreen on the body.

“Sunscreen really needs to be reapplied every two hours when you’re outside, but every hour if you are doing something where you’re getting in the water,” he says.

There are three rules for sunscreen, says Alexander. “You want an SPF of 30 or higher, it should be broad spectrum to protect against UVA and UVB rays and be water resistant with an 80-minute time limit,” he says.

Don’t forget to be good to your eyes by wearing protective eyewear. When outdoors, wear sunglasses that block at least 99 percent of UVA and UVB rays. Sunglasses can help prevent cataracts and wrinkles around the eyes. Ask your eye doctor about the best type to wear.

Skin also takes abuse from exposure to poison ivy and other plants during the summer months.  High rainfall, humidity and temperatures can result in a bumper crop of poison ivy, oak and sumac. When picnicking or hiking this summer, wear long sleeves and pants. “Poison ivy can produce a red, itchy rash, but it can be treated with over-the-counter pills or creams,” says Alexander.  

Topical corticosteroids (like hydrocortisone) can reduce swelling and help skin heal faster. Relieve itchiness with cold compresses, calamine lotion and/or an oral antihistamine.

Nutrition
Good nutrition is important at all times of the year, but summer is a good time to take advantage of fresh summer fruits like peaches, mangoes, cherries, cantaloupe and berries. These are loaded with fiber, antioxidants, vitamins and other nutrients, and they can help reduce the risk of disease.

People might think they need sun exposure to get enough vitamin D in their bodies, but you can consume it in a good diet, says Alexander. “Many of our foods are fortified with vitamin D or you can take a supplement. That way you are not exposed to the harmful rays of the sun.”  

Exercising outdoors shouldn’t be a problem if the body is well-hydrated. If you experience muscle cramps from too many games of softball or other activities, you may be dehydrated with an electrolyte imbalance. It makes sense to drink sports beverages and water, or eat potassium-rich foods like bananas, pineapple and coconut water, as recommended by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “A good diet is just common sense. Drink more water than usual and don’t wait until you’re thirsty to drink more,” says Alexander.


Into the Woods

Local nature programs that calm, refocus and connect people to the world around them

BY JOANN PETASCHNICK

Does life have you stressed out, stomach in knots, head pounding? Studies show that our environment can increase or reduce the level of stress we feel, but a pleasant milieu reverses that condition. It’s no wonder that most people, regardless of age or culture, choose a natural setting as a retreat when they want to slow things down. Even brief interactions with nature can soothe our brains.

“Many studies show time in nature is restorative, calming and even an antidote to some health problems,” says Ken Leinbach, executive director of the Urban Ecology Center (UEC) in Milwaukee, which “fosters ecological understanding as inspiration for change, neighborhood by neighborhood,” according to its mission statement. The UEC provides many such restorative settings at its three sites right here in the metro area.

For those who enjoy studying wildlife in its natural habitation, for example, the UEC’s Washington Park location is a fabulous oasis for urban birds and other critters. Groups can walk through the different habitats looking for birds, mammals, butterflies and other natural denizens. “We have canoe programs, walking clubs, a young scientist club, yoga and other activities. All three sites have similar programs,” says Leinbach.

First-hand experience has shown Leinbach that time spent in nature creates an uplifting and inspiring environment. “I got into this work as a high school science teacher. I found that when I took my students outside for class, the high-achieving kids did well, but the lower achieving kids tended to improve,” he says.

Interestingly, a field of psychotherapy has been introduced that places nature at the center of treatment. “It uses the power of nature to promote mental health,” Leinbach says.

Fortunately, you can find abundant local opportunities to drink in nature’s bounty and soothe your tired gray matter. The Schlitz Audubon Nature Center is another local treasure, a land conservancy that provides environmental education and accessible trails for people of all ages, abilities and backgrounds.

“What we try to do is connect people to the natural world, get them to love it and care for it enough to make some sacrifices,” says Don Quintenz, senior ecologist for the center. “We do that through our programs for preschoolers through older adults, including those with dementia and disabilities. We can accommodate all people. I’m a water person and my favorite thing is to take a kayak down some of the little rivulets that are too small to earn a name,” he says.
If you want to give yourself a little time to recover from the demands of urban life while contributing to the preservation of our natural world, there are many ways to volunteer, says Quintenz. “We have a beautiful property with prairies, woodlands and wet lands. Our volunteers go out and help heal the land by cutting down weeds and other invasive plants, all kinds of things,” he notes.

But time in nature isn’t just relaxing; it can pump you up, too. Some experimental psychology studies have linked exposure to nature with increased energy and a heightened sense of well-being. Research has shown that people on wilderness excursions report feeling more alive and that just the act of remembering their experiences later increases their feelings of good health and happiness.  

As psychotherapist and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel columnist Philip Chard notes, “When feeling wounded, adrift or in need of solace, many of us seek to connect with the natural world.”

For more information about these outdoor programs to soothe you and bring you closer to nature, visit urbanecologycenter.org and schlitzaudubon.org.

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