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Staying Safe in the Sun

August 11, 2021

With summer in full swing, we hope you and your family are out enjoying the sunshine and great weather, but don’t forget to plan ahead to protect yourself from the damaging effects of UV rays. Summer sees a lot of outdoor activities in the sun, and it’s also the time of year when UV rays are stronger, which can put you at higher risk for skin and eye damage, a weakened immune system and skin cancer. After experiencing a spinal cord injury or brain injury, sun safety can become even more essential with changes in skin integrity, heat sensation and physiological responses.

“Skin safety is paramount,” says Jon Killingsworth, a certified wound, ostomy and continence nurse (CWOCN) supervisor at Craig. “Skin breakdown is the number one secondary complication that a spinal cord injury patient can have post-injury. Skin integrity is critical for a number of reasons: keeping the body safe from outside organisms, regulating temperature, sensing the environment around us - and one of the protections the skin provides is from the sun in the form of UV rays.”

As one of Craig’s three dedicated CWOCNs, Jon is responsible for maintaining the skin integrity of Craig’s patients and educating patients, families and staff on how to do that effectively and in a variety of situations. Skin safety at Craig starts with a head-to-toe assessment when patients first arrive at Craig and continues throughout the inpatient and outpatient experience with education that empowers patients and their families to take the appropriate precautions to continue protecting their skin.

“I think sun safety is one of the things that can be overlooked, and that's why it's critical to educate about UV protection. It may be a small thing like a sunburn that leads to an open sore, which could lead to infection,” Jon says. “With a spinal cord injury, lack of sensation is going to affect how you respond to the environment, so being mindful of what is happening around your environment is important. In similar ways, a person with a brain injury may not be able to communicate discomfort, remember to apply sunscreen themselves or realize that they are in peril in the sun. And if someone can't communicate or meaningfully respond to this sensory input, then it's critical that there's some protection for them from the damaging effects of overexposure to the sun. It is important for caregivers, family and friends to help them apply protection.”

Jon’s passion for sun safety stems from his own background growing up in California and a family history of skin cancer. Just a few years ago, he was treated for a melanoma himself. “For me, it's personal. As much as I enjoy going out in the sun, I have to really be mindful about protection. Enjoy outdoor activities, but be careful and thoughtful about skin exposure,” Jon says. “It's a multidisciplinary effort here at Craig. A lot of our staff are active outdoors, so they understand the importance of sun safety also. It’s everyone’s job to educate about skin health and to keep our patients safe. ”

Here are some tips to help you protect yourself and your loved ones while out in the sun this summer:

  • Use sunscreen with an SPF that’s appropriate for the time you’re going to spend outside, whether you’ll be in the water or perspiring, and the altitude at which you’ll be doing your activity. At higher altitudes, like in many parts of Colorado, UV rays are more intense than at sea level, so be sure to wear a stronger sunscreen at higher altitudes. Cloudy skies may filter light, but remember that UV rays still get through. And don’t forget to reapply!
  • Wear protective clothing to cover vulnerable areas like the top of the head, back of the neck, arms, knees and shoulders. Consider clothing and accessories that are UV protective, can wick away moisture to protect skin integrity and help regulate your temperature in the heat.
  • Keep your gear cool. A lot of medical equipment, such as wheelchairs, are dark in color, which can absorb a lot of heat. Keep to the shade as much as possible in the heat of the day, and if you leave your wheelchair on shore or at poolside while you’re enjoying water activities, don’t forget to cover it with a towel or blanket to prevent burns or overheating when you return to it.
  • Ask for help in protecting yourself from the sun if needed, such as with applying sunscreen, putting on protective gear or cooling down. Rehabilitating after an injury is about becoming as independent as you can be but also knowing how to direct people when you do need assistance with something. Educating caregivers and family members is critical, especially for brain injury patients who may not be able to communicate a need.
  • Be mindful of keeping yourself cool while out in the sun. How the body regulates temperature can change after a spinal cord injury or brain injury. Take a thermometer with you to monitor your body temperature if you’re in the heat for an extended period of time. Wet towels and spray bottles can also help keep you cool, and staying hydrated is critical when out in the summer sun.
  • Keep an eye on your skin. Inspect your skin every day to screen for burns or skin breakdown. You can also use this time to keep a watchful eye on the features of your skin, like moles and freckles. Be sure to follow up with your primary care physician if you notice changes in your skin’s normal features.

Want more tips? Read our educational resource on sun safety.