The advent of the summer season brings with it a host of illnesses, be it heat-related diseases like heat rash, sun burns or heat stroke (characterised by body temperature higher than 41?C, associated with absence of sweating and neurological dysfunction); water-borne diseases like typhoid, cholera, gastroenteritis or hepatitis (jaundice); air-borne diseases like flu or eye infections. The very young and very old are especially more prone to these illnesses and require special care.
Though the heat does cause several problems but with a few simple precautions we can get through this season without falling ill. Precautions to be taken vary for different age groups as every group has its specific problems.
The very young baby, that is up to about six months of age, has a poor temperature control and should not be exposed to sudden changes in temperature and should be kept in cool airy surroundings. If they fall ill and suffer from diarrhoea or vomiting, they can get easily dehydrated. To prevent this they should be exclusively breast-fed, i.e. only mother'smilk and nothing else?not even water?as mother'smilk contains enough water and nutrients for the child'sneeds and to protect the child from illnesses. In case the child does develop some problems, breast-feeding should be continued unless the child is either not accepting feeds, or unconscious or lethargic, or vomiting excessively or has convulsions. In these cases a doctor should be consulted at the earliest.
Children should be encouraged to drink plenty of water from a clean source, or water should be chlorinated, or boiled for at least five minutes to kill the germs. They should be taught to wash their hands after playing, after going to the toilet and before eating food to prevent spread of infection. They should not be given cut fruits and other foods like ice-lollies (baraf ka gola) sold by roadside hawkers as the water used in them can spread diarrhoea, vomiting, typhoid, jaundice and cholera.
In fact the same precaution applies for teenagers and young adults too as this is the age group that moves around the most and is most likely to consume roadside food. Uncooked foods like curd and chutneys, unwashed or badly washed cut fruits and salads, gol gappas and chaats, fruit juices like sugarcane juice sold by roadside hawkers not only spread typhoid, jaundice and cholera but are a big culprit in the spread of tapeworm disease leading to cysticercosis of the brain which is now being found as a major cause of fits in Indians. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke also occur in this group as they spend more time out of doors. This can be prevented by wearing comfortable, loose cotton clothes, using a cap or umbrella or any other head covering and also by drinking adequate water. Water can also be consumed in the form of coconut water, lemonade (nimbu pani) or juice from a clean source?but not carbonated drinks or tea or coffee as these act as diuretics causing more loss of water from the body. A sunscreen may prevent sunburns and other skin problems.
In cities, swimming pools are a big source of infections during this season. Fungal infections and water-borne illnesses commonly spread in pools. Also a person with an infectious disease like jaundice or typhoid can spread it to others in a pool. This can be prevented by adequate chlorination of the pool and by bathing with clean water before and after entering a pool. Also persons with coughs, colds, skin infections should avoid using public pools to prevent spread of illnesses.
The elderly people find the summers very difficult as they, like babies, have a poor temperature control. They are prone to heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke in the elderly people may occur without any sweating. They are often on several medications and suffer from chronic illnesses like heart disease and diabetes which may precipitate the problem. To prevent this they should be encouraged to drink adequate water, eat a nutritious diet, and cover themselves appropriately, if exposed to high temperatures.
Through these simple precautions we can prevent ourselves and our loved ones from falling ill and thus make the hot summer months enjoyable.
(The writer is a family physician and specialist in maternal and child health.)