Stay Healthy All Summer Long

Learn what to do about bug bites, poison ivy, the public pool, and more!
By Holly Pevzner
May 14, 2013



May 14, 2013

The cuts, bumps, and scrapes of summer you can handle — and for the really serious stuff, you’ve got the pros on speed dial. But what to do about that funky chlorine smell at the pool? Or the poison ivy rash your kid just won’t stop scratching? You’d think by now, you’d have the answers — and yet every summer, you still find yourself facing a new round of stumpers: rules change, activities change, and kids change especially, too. To answer the season’s latest round of head-scratchers, we went straight to the experts. 

Q. Should I feel safe about — or skeeved by — the strong chlorine smell coming from the community pool?
A. Skeeved. “That’s not really chlorine you’re smelling,” says Chris J. Wiant, Ph.D., chair of the Water Quality and Health Council. “If the pool has a pungent smell, it’s because of compounds known as chloramines. They’re formed when chlorine and nitrogen in natural waste, like body oils, perspiration, urine, and fecal matter, combine chemically.” A properly cleaned pool will have a mild chlorine scent, but if the smell takes you back or irritates your eyes, skip the dip. “You may be at risk for pool-borne illnesses,” says Wiant.
Q. Poison ivy has invaded! How do I ease my child’s itch? 
A. Ice, ice, baby . . . and Benadryl. “The coldness of the ice confuses the nerves that trigger the itch sensation,” says Bruce Robinson, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York. Wrap ice in a washcloth and apply a few times a day for 10 to 15 minutes. Or try Sarna Original (CVS/pharmacy, $12), a cooling lotion. At night? Use Benadryl. “It helps ease the allergic reaction and, most of all, causes drowsiness so your kid can’t scratch,” says Dr. Robinson. Symptoms generally last for one to three weeks.
Q. I can’t get my child to keep sunglasses on. Does he really have to wear them?
A. He should, especially between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the intensity of ultraviolet light is greatest. “A child’s eye lens is clearer than an adult’s, so it allows more UV rays to enter, which can increase risk for early cataract and retinal damage,” says David L. Rogers, M.D., a pediatric ophthalmologist at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, OH. Look for wraparound sunglasses that fit well and block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB rays (it should say this on the label).
Q. Our playground just installed a water play area. The kids are psyched, but is it clean? 
A. You’ll need to do a little investigating to find out. “Because water play areas are fairly new to playgrounds, there may not be specific health requirements,” says Michele Hlavsa, R.N., chief of the Healthy Swimming program for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But there should be. While there’s no standing water in these kid-cooling-stations, germs can wash down into the water holding tank to be sprayed up again. “These tanks are often small, which could allow germs to reach higher concentrations than in a standard pool, potentially causing more illnesses,” says Hlavsa. (Think swimmer’s ear, rashes, diarrhea, and vomiting. Although possible, it’s unlikely that kids would contract a more serious viral infection from this type of exposure.) Contact your local health department and ask for the latest inspection score. If you discover that your fountain isn’t filtered or inspected, avoid it.
Q. Can I use my kids’ sunscreen?
A. You sure can. “An adult can use any sunscreen billed as children’s. And kids can use any option as well,” says Megha M. Tollefson, M.D., a pediatric dermatologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN. (The exception: Babies under 6 months should stay out of the sun, but if they absolutely need sunscreen, it should be a baby-only variety that contains physical blockers such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.) “Kid and adult sunscreens are effective no matter how old the person is,” notes Dr. Tollefson. The difference between the two is that many (but not all) kids’ products contain physical blockers, “which are better for sensitive skin than sunscreens that contain potentially irritating chemical blockers,” she explains. If you’re looking for a family option, it must be SPF 30 and water resistant and have broad-spectrum protection that helps block both UVA and UVB rays.
Don't miss these quick tips to keep you safe and insect-free this summer.
Q. What’s the safest and most effective way to prevent bug bites?
A. While there are a lot of natural bug repellents out there, DEET-based ones are the way to go, says Alison S. Tothy, M.D., chief of pediatric emergency medicine at the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital. “Sure, the natural stuff is better than nothing, but DEET is the most effective.” Dr. Tothy recommends using a repellent that contains no more than 30 percent DEET and that no bug spray be used on infants. “No serious illnesses have been linked to DEET’s use on kids, but illnesses have been linked to mosquito and tick bites, so use your best judgment,” notes Dr. Tothy. The American Academy of Pediatrics also gives a thumbs-up to DEET-like picaridin — use products containing 5 to 10 percent. Among the naturals, oil of lemon eucalyptus provides the most protection.
Q. How do I check for ticks?
A. Do a head-to-toe pre-bath scan in an empty tub. Start from the top — your child’s scalp — and move down. “Ticks like dark and moist areas, like butt cracks, the nape of the neck, underarms, belly buttons, behind ears — check them all,” says Dr. Tothy. You’re looking and feeling for a black speck. “It sort of resembles a black skin tag,” says Dr. Tothy. “If you find one, use tweezers to pull the tick out in the direction the body is going, making sure that the head is intact. If you weren’t able to get it all, go back and remove it like you would a splinter.” Got it out? Clean the area with soap and water and you’re done. “There’s no need to keep the tick or visit the doctor. But if you notice signs of infection near the bite or if your child develops a rash or flu-like symptoms anywhere between 3 and 30 days post-bite, get a Lyme disease check,” says Dr. Tothy.
Keep Bugs At Bay
DO apply bug spray outdoors.
DON’T spray insect repellent on anyone’s face. Instead, spray it on your hands and apply carefully, avoiding eyes and mouth.
DO spray clothes.
DON’T spray under clothes. 
DO have your kids wear lightweight long-sleeve shirts and long pants tucked into socks when playing in the woods. You may want to avoid the woods when it’s too hot to cover up!
DON’T use repellents over cuts or irritated skin.
DO wash the repellents off once inside.
DON’T wash your kiddo with scented soaps. The AAP notes that this may attract insects.
Staying Safe in the Pool
Before You Jump In . . .
  • Shower before getting in the pool, being sure to clean little one’s bums.
  • Have the kids use the bathroom and wash hands before diving in.
  • Change babies into fresh swim diapers, but never make the change poolside.
  • Don’t swallow pool water.
  • Rinse off when you’re done.
Head Back Home If . . .
  • The water is cloudy.
  • You or your child has any GI issues.
  • The walls are slimy.
  • The smell is pungent.
  • You or your child has an open wound.
  • The water is not being filtered. (You should hear it running and see filtered water bubbling in the pool.)
Photo Credit: Joe Polillio/Getty Images
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