Surviving Ukraine’s seasonal climate change Summer health tips: survive and thrive during the long, hot Ukrainian summer
As the summer sun continues to drench Ukraine it is perhaps worth stopping and considering how the hot weather affects our health in this land of extreme seasonal climate changes. For a country famed for its long, cold winters, it can be incredibly hot in Ukraine during the summertime and we all need to realise how that can affect us.
Ukraine’s summer sun: a natural high
First and foremost it is important to stress that natural sunshine is very good for us. It brings with it a sense of health and well-being and has been shown to help in the treatment of numerous psychological illnesses. Indeed, some people become depressed during the Ukrainian winter due to a shortage of sunshine, and in such cases the first few weeks of spring sunlight can bring an almost quantifiable boost.
For most of us the annual return of the Ukrainian sun - especially when coupled with Ukraine’s numerous spring and summer season public holidays - brings a sense of relaxation and regeneration. Sunshine works through our brain centres to stimulate a whole group of powerful hormones in both men and women. For example, increasing daylight raises reproductive hormones ensuring that in more primitive times, pregnancy more commonly occurred when there was a plentiful supply of foodstuff.
Time to stock up on fruit and veg
One of the most obvious benefits of the summer is the plentiful supply of fresh vegetables, fruits, and berries that are brought into the bazaar from the countryside on a daily basis. Now is a great time to replenish all those vitamins and trace elements that we lost during the long winter when good quality produce is traditionally less easy to obtain. It’s also a time to switch our diets to more salads and vegetables and away from the carbohydrates, fats and meat that we tend to eat more of in the winter months.
Sunshine also allows us to partake in much more exercise than in the winter months, which improves our health and lets us spend more time with our friends and families. These social exchanges also help to generate valuable neurochemicals that keep us happy and neutralise the unavoidable stresses of everyday life.
Avoiding sunburn and skin cancer
Sadly, the impact of Ukraine’s brilliant summer sunshine is not all positive and there are a number of ways in which it can negatively affect our health. Luckily, with the right precautions you can hopefully avoid the worst of these negative impacts. Direct sunlight affects our skin in several ways; firstly, there is the all-too-common condition of sunburn, which is no different or less painful than any other type of skin burn. Sunburn damages the skin and if either severe or frequent can permanently affect skin, causing it to age and wrinkle – a condition often seen in people from north European climes who have lived for many years in the tropics.
Secondly, sunlight can cause an allergic type reaction in human skin, particularly in humid conditions. This so-called “prickly heat” earned its name because of the irritating raised rash which accompanies the condition. It can be helped and sometimes prevented by antihistamines as well as by keeping out of severe sunlight.
Exposure to sunshine has also been implicated as a leading cause of skin cancer. This is undoubtedly true for one of the very benign forms of skin cancer which grows slowly and doesn’t spread but which does need to be removed. However Melanoma – perhaps one of the most serious types of cancer – is commonly thought to be caused by exposure to sunlight, but the medical evidence to suppose this is actually less strong. Melanoma certainly seems to be on the increase but there may be other factors aiding its spread. Those with fair and freckled skin are said to be more at risk of this disease. For all these conditions nothing works better than keeping out of the mid-day sun for several hours and for the rest of the time using a good sun block cream. Using anything less than a factor 30 cream is generally unhelpful. This is especially important for children as their skin surface area is relatively larger and so burns will have a bigger effect on their general health. Their immature skin may be more prone to malignant change and long-term damage.
Air conditioner options
The often extreme heat of the Ukrainian summer also affects our sleep patterns, sometimes causing us to have altered sleep regimes and to sleep more deeply than usual just before waking, which in turn can make us feel exhausted when we wake up to our standard morning alarm call. Personally, I don’t think that air conditioning is the immediate answer to the sort of temperatures we have in Ukraine. Air conditioning can cause dehydration and dryness of our nasal passages, while rapid cooling for a length of time may affect our immune system, leaving us more prone to infections. At work I choose to use a fan and only turn on the air-conditioning at home for half an hour before sleeping. In particular, ill children should not be nursed in air conditioned rooms as this often adds to their dehydration and makes their general condition worse. Instead, they are much better off being nursed with a fan and stripped down to their underclothes. Hot babies and infants too need to lose their body heat – something which they often do through their heads - and they should not be over wrapped when ill.
Mosquito madness and tick checks
With the arrival of the summer sunshine in Ukraine some associated environmental problems inevitably arise. Mosquitos are a major pain and these little devils are the scourge of countless shashlyk parties throughout the long months of the Ukrainian summer season. Ukrainian mosquitos can leave savage bites and whilst most of their effect is caused by histamine - which causes severe itching and redness - the bites can sometimes get infected and require antibiotics. Sprays and sensible clothing in the evening help, as does having a strong French cigarette burning away in a nearby ashtray!
Inevitably, summer means getting out of the city so do beware of the ticks that can be found everywhere in the Ukrainian countryside. After mosquitos, these ticks are the number two seasonal pest in Ukraine. It is important that you methodically search for them all over your body after any trip beyond the city limits. If you discover any, cover them with gel and pull them off once they have suffocated, then seek medical advice. Any insect bite which produces a spreading red ring a few weeks after the initial incident is probably a tick bite and also needs professional medical treatment.
If you are lucky enough to be travelling to tropical countries this summer season make sure you take health advice - especially about malaria and other tropical diseases. For those of us who will be staying in Ukraine the next few months will be a great chance to enjoy family and friends and spend a little time using the good weather to invest in both mental and physical health.
Dr. Richard Styles ( [email protected] ) is a British family physician at American Medical Centres in Kyiv. He has 32 years experience of practicing family medicine in the UK, Ukraine and elsewhere, and for three years worked for the EU in cooperation with the Ukrainian Ministry of Health in developing family medicine in Ukraine.