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Column originally published Jun 29, 2021

Enjoy The Summer, But Protect Yourself Against Sunburn And Lyme Disease

Question: A couple of weeks ago, when we had the heat wave, I made a big mistake. I sat out in the sun and forgot to put on sunscreen. I dozed off, and when I woke up, I had a bad sunburn. I have learned my lesson. I am an avid hiker; I usually hike in the woods every weekend. I have heard that ticks that can transmit Lyme disease have been found in the Maritimes. How much precaution should I take?


After a long winter, and pandemic lockdown, it is hard to resist the sunshine and hot weather. You are likely not the only one that got sunburn. All of us have to remember that sunscreen is very important to prevent sunburn as well as skin cancer. Sunburn is caused by UVB (ultraviolet-B) rays, while skin cancer and skin aging are caused by UVA.

Let me briefly talk about sun protection first. Everyone is aware of sunscreens, but not all sunscreens are equal. Most of us should put on sunscreen if we are out in the sun for more than a few minutes, and if the UV index is higher than 3. The higher the UV index, the greater is the chance of sunburn. The colour of our skin, as well as whether we get tanned easily, can affect this decision.

In recent years, there is concern that some of the chemicals used in sunscreens can be absorbed into the body. United States Federal Drug Administration (FDA) has requested manufacturers to provide information about the safety of these chemicals. At the present time, there is no indication that they are unsafe. However, some of these chemicals have been shown to be harmful for coral reefs, and are banned in various locations around the world. There are some mineral-based sunscreens using titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to block UV rays. However, they are generally less effective.

Whichever sunscreen that you decide to use, you have to apply it regularly (about every two hours) if you stay under the sun, as well as every time after you come out of water. Children under six months should stay in the shade instead of using sunscreen.

There is another alternative to the use of sunscreen: put on shirts and pants that have high SPF (sun-protection factor). These can be as effective as sunscreen. You will only need to put sunscreen on exposed areas. Wearing a wide-brim hat can protect your ears and nose, depending on direction of the sun. In this way, you can minimize the use of sunscreen. Wearing sunglasses, even for young children, will protect the eyes even in winter.

Ticks that carry Lyme disease have been found in the Maritimes in the last decade. With climate change, we know this will only increase over time. These ticks have no wings; they cannot fly. They wait for us, humans and our pets, to pass by and hitch on our skin or clothing, and on our pets’ fur.

The best way to protect ourselves is to wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants; tug the shirt inside the pants, and the pants inside the socks. This will prevent ticks from reaching the skin.

The most effective insect repellent is 30% DEET, it is very safe. Other sprays using picaridin (also called icaridin) are almost as effective; picaridin is related to a chemical derived from pepper plants. Sprays containing 30% oil of lemon eucalyptus (OLE) may also be effective. These OLE sprays are different from essential oils with the same name, so don’t get confused. These sprays should be applied to clothing as well as exposed skin. If you use sunscreen and insect repellent, apply sunscreen first and then the repellent.

In recent years, some clothing companies have designed shirts, pants, and hats impregnated with permethrin, a chemical that can kill mosquitos and ticks. They also have high SPF, basically protecting you from the sun as well as annoying mosquito bites and tick-borne diseases. Sprays containing 0.5% permethrin are also available to be sprayed on clothes before they are worn. However, don’t spray this on the skin directly, it can be quite irritating.

After your hike, you should take additional precautions, including putting all your clothes through washer and dryer to kill any attached ticks. Closely inspect the skin to make sure that no ticks have attached. If you found ticks on the body, remove them carefully with tweezers, grab the tick close to the skin and pull; it is important to remove the mouthpiece as well as the body. You can send the tick to your local hospital laboratory for identification as well as test to determine whether it carries Borrelia, the bacteria responsible for Lyme disease.

If you remove the tick(s) within 24 hours, you are likely not infected. You should consult with your family doctor or healthcare professional. Early use of prophylactic antibiotic can also prevent Lyme disease. Enjoy the summer.

[Note to Readers: Please read additional column in August 2014 for more information on sunscreen, and column in June 2015 on Lyme Disease]