Health

Margarita burn and 3 other little-known summer hazards

Summer won't be nearly as relaxing as you would like if you run into one of these irritants.

I thought I knew what to watch out for at the cottage, but I was wrong

Summer is great. But four little-known dangers can seriously hamper your holiday. (Shutterstock/oneinchpunch)

These are the joys of long summer days: Picnics, camping trips, sitting on a cottage dock for languid afternoons, taking a break to dip in the cold, clear lake.

Summer holidays, just like when you were a kid and were the boss of all the days between June and September. Late sunsets and long nights filled with festivals and patios and barbecues; every single summer day seems like a gift from all the beer commercials ever made.

But perils lurk in the misleadingly carefree summer reverie. And sorry to be a Debbie Downer, but you may want to put your hat on and go inside. Beware summer.

I got a good taste of this last week, after a weekend at the cottage. What looked like a bite – angry, red and swollen – appeared on my hand one morning. At first I thought it was a spider bite, then, maybe poison ivy.

I'm a city girl – everything north of the subway line sends me into seismic sneezes – so I was nonchalant at first.

But the yellow blister spread across the back of my hand, looking like something from a horror movie would burst forth at any minute. When I crawled, sheepish and freaked out, to a walk-in clinic, the verdict was not what I'd expected.

I'd been bitten by a margarita.
A weekend at the cottage and I got a margarita burn. The blister, caused by an interaction of lime juice and sunlight, spread and grew. After two weeks, my hand still looked pretty bad. (CBC)

Usually, the dangers of drinking margaritas in the sunshine are well known. Tequila, mixed with being relaxed to the point of not paying attention, carries its own penalty. But this was not that.

It's called a margarita burn (or phytophotodermatitis, if you prefer the technical term).

The party starts when a class of chemicals in lime juice, called furocoumarins, bind to the DNA on your skin. It's not a problem until you go outside. The chemicals react with the sunlight, and you can end up with what I had: a second-degree burn, cooked in a lime-juice marinade. I was human ceviche. 

Two weeks later, my hand still looks like I got into a bad bar fight. And after extensive, buzz-killing research, I'm here to tell you that cocktail-associated maladies are not the only strange danger that can mar your summer. Here are three more.

1. Bites that ruin burgers

Summer also means that we are a food source for the mighty class of insects.

If you're unlucky, you can end up with West Nile virus from mosquitoes or Lyme disease from ticks; but if you're bitten by a lone star tick, eating your next burger could kill you.
Tick bites can make you seriously allergic to red meat. Really. (Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)

Thousands of cases of anaphylactic reactions to red meat caused by tick bites have been documented in the U.S., according to a 2012 study in the journal Current Allergy and Asthma Reports.

The lone star tick, named after the white dot in the middle of the back of female ticks, isn't common in Canada, but it's abundant in parts of the U.S. and has been found as far north as Maine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. And numbers are growing.

"This has been documented to be a real meat allergy, which is uncommon," says Dr. Kathleen Kerr, staff physician at the Environmental Health Clinic at Women's College Hospital in Toronto.

"And it would be in people who never had a meat allergy until they were bitten by the tick. And then some researcher was successful in narrowing this down to a type of sugar called alpha-gal that the lone star injects." Don't panic: It's likely that one tick by itself won't trigger the allergy.

"I've never seen a case in Canada," she says. "But if you look at the lone star tick geography, it doesn't look like it's too far away. It could be creeping north and people do travel. So we maybe have to look for cases."

AVOID IT: Check yourself, and your pets, for ticks thoroughly after going out in the woods. If you find one, take fine tweezers and grab the tick as low as possible in the skin. Pull straight out.

2. Bouquets that burn

When Einstein said: "Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better," did he mean it as a warning? We all know to watch for poison ivy. But two other plants that have crept into Canada like an alien invasion are giant hogweed and wild parsnip.

The plants can be deceptively pretty – hogweed looks like Queen Anne's Lace; parsnip has delicate branches of yellow flowers – so pause before picking posies. Contact with the sap can cause severe burns.
If you pick this pretty flower, you can end up with severe, blistering burns that last for weeks and scars that last for years. (CBC)

"Serious and extensive weeping blisters," is the phrase the Canadian Biodiversity Information Facility uses to describe hogweed burns.

With hogweed, and other plants like wild parsnip, it's direct sunlight that triggers the reaction. Symptoms can take a few days to appear, but the lesions can take weeks to heal and dark scars can last for years.

"The resin has to get in through the skin, so a lot of the time it's when you're walking and then something sort of nicks you and that gets it in much quicker," says Dr. Peter Lin, a CBC health columnist who has been a practising family physician for more than 25 years.

"And then it could be on your clothes and then you touch that and then usually you scratch, now you've deposited it deeper in your skin. And then it gets under your fingernail so you scratch that spot and then you scratch another spot, and you've transmitted that resin to other parts of your body."

He adds, "Before you go past something the key is not to graze past something. Have a look down and see what you're walking through."

AVOID IT: If it's not too much cognitive dissonance, your smartphone can help you enjoy nature. "There are apps now so you can try to identify plants," Dr. Lin says.

3.Thunderstorms that make you wheeze

It can be breathtaking to watch a summer storm: lightning flashing as the clouds roll in, wind shaking the trees, rain pouring in sheets. But it can also, actually, make it hard to breathe. Thunderstorm asthma is a phenomenon where storms actually trigger symptoms.

About 80 per cent of asthma is triggered by allergies to common dangers like cats, dust mites, ragweed, and, now, storms. There is a logic at work here. It's about exploding pollen.
Thunderstorms can bring on asthma attacks because they can make pollen explode, making it easier to inhale. (Donna Lypchuk/Canadian Press)

Large pollen particles usually get trapped in the nose, making us sniffly and uncomfortable. But "what happens with thunderstorm asthma is that the thunderstorm and the wind and everything that happens as part of the weather pattern actually breaks up the particles into smaller particles and it allows them to be inhaled," says Noah Farber of the Asthma Society of Canada.

"What's happening is that now that these pollen particles are smaller, they're inhaled into the lungs, which is what brings about the specific asthma trigger."

AVOID IT:  If you suffer from asthma, know that storms can be a trigger, and make sure you have your medication on hand if a storm pelts you with pollen.

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