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Dr. Anderson: Skin and Climate Changes

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Dr. Anderson: Skin and Climate Changes

Doctor Eric Anderson, a charter diplomat of the American Board of Family Practice and a former president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, is a regular contributor to Travel Tips 'n' Tales. He is widely traveled and published, having written a travel health column for Travel 50 & Beyond and a weekly online column, Ask The Doctor, for The New York Times Syndicate.

Dr. Anderson invites you to send your questions regarding travel health issues to ericmd@lorrypatton.com

Cold Weather Itch & Hot Weather Rashes

Eric Anderson MD

Dr_Anderson210.jpg When we travel to places that are very hot we get heat rashes and swollen ankles, and when we travel somewhere that's very cold and dry we get itchy skin, nose bleeds and chapped lips. Why is our body affected by extreme climate changes and how best can we prepare for this?

You're right; we sure get problems when we move around in countries with different climates. Those problems are because climate variations particularly impact the only barrier between our body and our outside environment, the biggest organ in the human body: our skin. The skin, about 16 percent of our body weight, has many functions and one important one is to keep our body temperature constant despite what's going on outside. And that's a challenge when we are, literally, out of our environment.

Hot & Humid Places

1. Hot places that are humid make our skin sweat. The sweat can't evaporate because of the humidity and the sweat glands become irritated causing what we call prickly heat. Moist skin is also susceptible to fungal and yeast infections which often develop in those hidden places "where the sun don't shine." And heat and humidity can be trigger factors for the 15 million or so Americans who have eczema, a skin problem, partly genetic, that's worse for those at the two extremes of age: children and the elderly.

Specific considerations for hot humid climes are, as we've all personally found, learning to avoid tight synthetic clothing, and rely instead on loosely fitting cottons and seek relief where we can find air conditioning.. A hair drier can be used to dry soggy skin that is becoming irritated. Corn starch may be helpful to dry up lesions. Anti-yeast creams may be useful. Cortisone cream may assist or worsen the situation. Furthermore, travelers who can wear their jewelry without difficulty back home often find allergic reactions developing if the skin becomes soggy and irritated because there is a tiny amount of nickel in most jewelry and many persons are allergic to that.

We can get swollen legs in hot places for different reasons. This problem may have begun as we sat a long time in aircraft or just sat lazily in a hot sun. The heat makes our blood vessels open up, and our lower limbs as a result of gravity become suffused with poorly-circulating blood that just puddles there (though elevation and brisk activity gets the circulation moving again). The stress of intolerable heat can also be difficult for a person with heart disease and cause lower limb swelling but that's another story.

Hot & Dry Places

2. Hot dry places create the opposite predicament. The outer layer of the skin is normally 10 percent water and climates that reduce that amount make the skin feel uncomfortably dry. The remedy is to bathe less often and to use moisturizer creams. And, of course, use sunscreens that block both ultraviolet A and B rays and have at least a sun protection factor of 15. We should avoid midday sun especially if we're taking one of the many medicines that cause photosensitivity (increased intolerance to solar radiation). This means we have to read labels and that goes for skin products too: persons with sensitive skin should avoid lotions or creams that contain alpha-hydroxy acids (AHA). Alcohol is present on many wet wipes and although those may make sense before eating if we can't wash our hands, they can dry the skin if used excessively.

The American Southwest in summer can really dry us out. A few days there in hot weather can make anyone's eyes red though artificial tears help. Hot dry air can cause the inside lining of the nose to crack and become painful. The very day I flew back from five days in Las Vegas I had a miserable posterior nose bleed. (Nose bleeds from the back, not front, of the nose can be serious and difficult to stop. Mine required two ER visits.) The air in aircraft is very dry also and it's worth while pocketing any salt packets that come on our meal tray for future salt water sniffing if we sense our nose lining is getting too dry in hot climes.

Cold & Dry Places

3. Cold dry places often make us spend more time indoors where the air is even drier. Outside, people are subject to the drying action of wind and possibly the irritation of wool garments -- which are always a problem for persons with eczema.

Dry cold weather itch is more of a problem than any other skin condition but can often be prevented. The rules for persons with winter-sensitive skin are to avoid over-bathing as it sucks a lot of the natural oils out of the skin. Showers are less drying to the skin than tub baths; lukewarm water is better than hot, mild soaps make more sense than strong or antiseptic ones, scrubbing of the skin should be avoided, soap should be rinsed off well and a plain moisturizer (without fragrance) should be applied all over within three minutes of a shower. (Dermatologists call that the "Three Minutes Rule.") Lip balms can stop cracking of lips and the eruption of cold sores that frequently follow.

If our hotel offers some rooms with humidifiers should we snap one up? Yes if we are confident it carries out proper maintenance on them. If they are not kept clean they grow molds, the worst thing for a person with lung problems to face.

So should we stay home and avoid all that stuff? Not at all. We face some of those problems at home all the time as the seasons change. We handle them. And we get out there and travel.

» » More articles by Dr. Eric Anderson

NOTE: Lorry Patton's Travel Tips 'n' Tales would like to remind you to always consult with your personal physician before following any medical advice and to please read the Travel Tips 'n' Tales "Terms of Use" found on the bottom of each page of this website. Dr. Anderson's opinions are not necessarily the opinions of Lorry Patton or Travel Tips 'n' Tales.