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Vital Signs


Vital Signs

Summer 2010

Heed the Warnings About Overexposure to Sun

VS-Summer10-Sun ExposureFor all of the talk in recent years about the harmful effects of ultraviolet rays from the sun, not everyone has heeded the message. “Many people don’t realize that the damage from UV exposure is cumulative — from childhood to the point that they’re seeing the dermatologist about possible skin cancer,” says UCLA dermatologist Joseph Greco, M.D. “Many people think they don’t need to protect themselves unless they’re going to be getting direct sunlight for an extended period, or they assume that putting sunscreen on in the morning protects them for the entire day.”

Skin cancer is the most common malignancy:
More than one million new cases are diagnosed each year in the United States. Although curable when detected early, it can be fatal when allowed to progress — particularly the most serious form of skin cancer, melanoma. Everyone is susceptible to UV’s harmful effects not just when lying by the pool or at the beach, but during activities as mundane as driving a car.

While burning is bad, not all exposure to sunlight is harmful.
The sun’s UV rays help the body to produce Vitamin D, which is essential for health. The key is moderate exposure. Short bursts of 15 minutes at mid-day two to three times a week during late spring, summer and early autumn is recommended. Exposure should be limited to about 10-15 percent of the body’s surface, but not necessarily the face, arms or neck, which are most prone to skin cancers.

With that in mind, Dr. Greco and his colleagues have developed a mnemonic device for strategies to protect against UV harm: PROTECT.
Protection against burning. Wear sun-protective clothing: a long-sleeve shirt, pants, a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Seek shade. Generously apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen (covering both UVA and UVB rays) with a sun-protection factor of at least 30 to all exposed areas 15-30 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two to three hours — particularly after swimming or sweating.

Risk awareness. People with an elevated skin-cancer risk include individuals with fair skin, a history of sunburns and excessive sun exposure, a large number of moles or atypical moles, and a personal or family history of skin cancer, as well as those with a compromised immune system or a history of exposure to hazardous chemicals.

VS-Summer10-Sun OverexposureOutdoor-activity planning. When possible, plan outdoor activities that don’t fall during the hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are most potent. Even on cloudy days, the majority of UV rays reach the Earth’s surface.

Tanning beds: Avoid. Each year, 28-million people seek to darken their skin away from the sun, putting themselves at greater risk for all types of skin cancers. Just because you don’t burn on a tanning bed doesn’t mean you are safe.

Examine your skin once a month to look for new moles or changes in existing ones. Follow the A-B-C-D-E rule: Asymmetry (a mole that looks different on one side than on the other); border irregularity (anything jagged, blurry or protruding); color changes, or the appearance of multiple colors; diameter — moles larger than 6 millimeters (about 1/4 inch); and evolution — rapid changes in any of the above. Report anything suspicious to your primary care physician or dermatologist.

Consult with a dermatologist if you have questions or concerns about your skin.

Take your skin seriously. “Sun protection saves lives,” Dr. Greco says.

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