Friday, October 30, 2009

Sunburns in the Mountains

Over the decade that I've been guiding, I've decided that the greatest enemy to the climber is not the rain, it's not the snow and it's not the wind. Instead, it is the sun. There is nothing more relenting and nothing that will have such dire long term effects as the sun.

There was a time in my life when I went from working in the heat of the desert directly to high altitude snow. These are both places where the sun is far more dangerous than in a city. And while I'm not aware of any reports of a higher incidence of skin cancer among climbers, it wouldn't surprise me if this were the case.

The most common places for climbers to get burned are on the tops of the ears, the tip of the nose and on the lips. High altitude climbers on glaciers will also see burns develop on the roof of their mouths and inside their nostrils.

The Author Belaying on Mount Baker
The bandanna covers both his ears and neck.

It might seem obvious, but it is incredibly important to wear sunscreen and cover as much skin as possible when you are in bright sunlight. Over the years I've had a few people on glaciers who decided that they "tan well" and elected not to wear sunscreen. In each of these cases, the climbers contracted serious burns that were so bad, they actually scabbed up.

Whether in the desert or at high altitude one must apply sunscreen and then reapply it often.

Many climbers on big mountains will wear a Buff to cover their faces or will carry multiple bandannas to pin around their faces and necks "Al Qaeda" style. Most will wear sunglasses with a nose beak. And many will apply sunscreen inside the nostrils.

In the desert, some will wear a bandana under their helmets and over their ears and neck. Sunshirts and shirts with collars are also popular. Sunshirts are designed to reflect most of the sunlight away while providing good coverage. Shirts with collars provide a little extra shade for the neck.

These hiking oriented shirts can be found at most outdoor stores.

Following is a quick breakdown of how to treat a sunburn from the Sunburn Resource:

1. When treating sunburn, it is very important to prevent further damage or irritation. To prevent sunburned skin from getting worse, keep from further direct exposure to the sun, and stay indoors as much as possible.

2. Closely observe the affected areas for blisters. When blisters are present, this means that the skin has been severely damaged, and complications are highly probable. Don’t try to break them, or you’ll increase the risk of infection. If blisters are present on a large area of the skin, get to a hospital’s emergency room immediately. Other instances that warrant medical attention right away are when severe swelling causes breathing difficulty, when pain on the affected area is terrible, and when serious swelling occurs around the limbs such that it threatens to constrict blood flow and cause hands or feet to go numb or turn bluish. Too much sun exposure can also cause other related ailments, such as sun poison or heat stroke. When any of these are suspected or when high fever is detected, consult a doctor immediately.

3. Take pain relievers to help ease the pain and swelling. Aspirin and ibuprofen are examples of oral medications commonly taken to minimize these sunburn symptoms, but do avoid giving aspirin to a child or teenager. Also, consult a doctor before taking any pain killer if you’re also taking prescribed medication.

4. Drink lots of water. This will help you regain lost fluids in your body, as well as aid your system in its recovery from sunburn. Fresh fruit juice, such as watermelon, is also a good alternative. Avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages, as these may cause further dehydration.

5. Regularly apply a cool, soothing cream or aloe lotion to the affected area to keep it moist. Aloe extract has powerful healing properties, and is most effective in its pure form. Vitamin enriched lotions and moisturizers may also help speed healing. When treating moderate to severe burns, 1% hydrocortisone cream may also be used. Avoid using butter, oil, and strong ointments on burned skin, as these will only irritate and worsen sunburn symptoms.

On mountains like Denali, climbers must completely cover their skin.

6. Shower with cool water whenever possible. This should help ease the pain and discomfort on your skin until it begins to heal. Use very mild soap, and refrain from using abrasive personal skin products, such as exfoliating skin formulas and body scrubs to avoid irritation.

7. Wear loose-fitting clothes made of natural fibers, such as cotton or silk, as sunburned skin tends to be extremely sensitive, and harsher fabrics will do more harm than good. When heading outdoors, wear long sleeved shirts and long pants that cover the affected areas.

8. Leave peeling skin alone. When your skin starts peeling, try your very best not to scratch, scrub or strip the dry skin off. The layer of skin underneath the peeling is still very sensitive, and will only lead to further skin damage when forcibly exposed. Just continue using moisturizer to help relieve itching and dryness.

Following is a short video on sunburn treatment:

--Jason D. Martin

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