How to stay healthy this summer, according to an expert
For much of the world, summer has already arrived or will be upon them soon.
More than three years into the Covid-19 pandemic, many people are eager to resume activities that they’ve put on hold and to embark on new adventures.
To help us with tips for staying well and avoiding diseases like Lyme, enterovirus and Covid-19, I spoke with CNN medical analyst, Dr. Leana Wen. Wen is an emergency physician and professor of health policy and management at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health. She previously served as Baltimore’s health commissioner.
Here’s her advice for staying healthy while having fun this summer.
Dr. Leana Wen: The most important action is to optimize your health based on your individual medical circumstances.
If you have chronic medical conditions, like high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid problems, high cholesterol, asthma, obesity or other conditions, make sure that they are under good control. Catch up on any missed medical appointments and ask your doctor if there is anything more to do to get healthier given your existing medical conditions.
Many people missed cancer screenings, colonoscopies and other preventive care during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Speak with your health care provider about when you are due for your next cervical, breast, colon and other cancer tests.
Alcohol use has spiked during the pandemic. Ask yourself if you’ve been drinking too much, and work to cut back if you have. If you regularly use other addictive substances, including tobacco, opioids and recreational cannabis, consider the risks and look to reduce use.
Other aspects to look at include sleep and exercise. And, of course, mental health is an important part of overall health and wellness. Getting treatment for depression, anxiety and other conditions and addressing stress are all key to staying healthy.
CNN: Let’s talk about specific diseases often associated with summer. How can people prevent Lyme disease, and why is this important?
Wen: Lyme disease is the most common vector-borne disease in the United States. Vectors are animals like mosquitos and ticks that spread infections, and in the case of Lyme, the vectors are particular types of ticks that spread a bacteria that causes Lyme. Short-term, Lyme disease manifests as muscle aches, joint pain, fever, rash and headaches. The problem is that some untreated individuals proceed to long-lasting symptoms that include arthritis, episodes of dizziness and palpitations, ongoing nerve pain and facial paralysis.
The best way to prevent these consequences is to prevent tick bites in the first place. Wear long-sleeved shirts and pants when going to areas where ticks can be found, especially in the spring and summer months when ticks are most prevalent. Use insect repellant that contains DEET.
Once indoors, examine yourself, children and pets for ticks, keeping in mind that they can be very small. Remove ticks as soon as they are found. Keep the tick in a small jar or Ziploc bag for identification, and immediately contact your primary care provider. Early and prompt antibiotic use is very effective in treating Lyme and preventing progression to long-term symptoms.
CNN: We hear a lot about enteroviruses in the summer, too. What are they and how much should people be concerned about them?
Wen: Enteroviruses are a class of dozens of viruses that are extremely common. About half of people infected with them don’t get sick at all, in part due to prior exposure. Of those who become ill, most have symptoms of the common cold, with fever, runny nose, sore throat, coughing and muscle aches. Some enteroviruses lead to gastrointestinal upset and could include nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In very rare cases, these viral infections can affect the brain and the heart.
In the United States, it’s estimated that 10 million to 15 million illnesses are caused by enteroviruses each year, usually between June and October. Enteroviruses are easily transmissible. They can be transmitted via respiratory droplets — for example, if an infected person sneezes or coughs and that droplet lands on you or if you end up touching a contaminated surface. Some viruses also can be transmitted via the saliva or stool of an infected person.
Prevention includes frequent handwashing, especially after touching commonly used surfaces. Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands. People with symptoms should stay home and avoid close contact such as kissing, hugging, and sharing utensils with others. Regularly sanitizing frequently touched surfaces can help reduce transmission as well.
CNN: What about Covid-19? How much should people be concerned about the coronavirus this summer?
Wen: The national emergency around Covid-19 has ended, but the coronavirus is very much still with us. There were over 7,600 hospitalizations due to Covid-19 in the last week, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
How much concern Covid-19 represents to each person depends on their individual medical and family circumstances. For most generally healthy people who are vaccinated or have already had the coronavirus, they are unlikely to become severely ill if they were to contract it.
However, some people, such as the elderly with multiple medical conditions, remain very vulnerable. Those individuals should take additional precautions, including being up-to-date with boosters, ensuring they have access to treatments such as the antiviral pill Paxlovid, gathering outdoors instead of indoors, and masking in crowded indoor settings.
It’s important to note that the situation around Covid-19 can change. New variants may emerge that evade prior immunity. And there is a lot more still to be done to understand, prevent and treat long Covid. For the time being, people should assess their own risk of Covid-19 and the risks of those close to them and take precautions appropriate to that level of risk — while also working to improve their overall health.