Most people love sunny, warm days, when they can get outside for fun and soak up the sun. But sun is one good thing you can have too much of - and not even know you've had too much until much later, when, like about 80,000 Canadians every year, you're diagnosed with skin cancer. Fortunately, 19 out of 20 cases of diagnosed skin cancer are less aggressive forms called basal cell or squamous cell cancers, which are fairly easy to treat. But 6% are melanoma, a more serious form of skin cancer that can spread to other parts of the body.
It's important to know your skin and the signs of skin cancer. If you notice any unusual moles or marks on your skin, watch them closely. The most common skin cancers (basal and squamous cell) can look like a small, skin-coloured or red knob. The more dangerous melanoma usually begins as a mole that seems to change colour or size. What are the signs that tell you to have a doctor look at a mole? Just remember ABCD:
Skin cancer is usually caused by the skin's exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun. The more sun you're exposed to over your lifetime, the higher your risk of developing cancer.
It's estimated that up to 80% of a person's total exposure to the sun happens before 18 years of age. Because of this, it's good to teach children healthy sun habits from the start. One serious sunburn in childhood can increase future cancer risk by as much as 50%.
Babies under six months old are especially susceptible to the glare of sunshine and should be kept out of the sun completely. They're too young for sunscreen, so keep the baby in the shade and covered as much as possible. Don't forget that the sun can reflect off shiny surfaces and swimming pools, so keep babies well shaded from all directions at all times.
There is a common myth that if a person tans well, they're protected from these harmful rays. Not true! While it is true that fair-haired, blue-eyed people are most prone to burning, and therefore are more susceptible to the sun's rays, even "healthy" tans are really just damage control - they're your body's way of trying to protect itself from the sun. But the damage is already done and can't be reversed. Years of sun worshipping, be it outside or in a tanning salon, will eventually show up later on in life as wrinkles, poor skin elasticity, and possibly skin cancer.
The sun, however, is also very important to our health. It provides us with vitamin D (which we need for our bones), and it can lift our spirits. In fact, there's a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) that can happen when there's more darkness than daylight - those experiencing SAD feel "down" during the winter months and much better when summer comes. So staying holed up deep inside isn't the way to go either.
As with most good things, moderation and good sense are the keys. The goal is to have fun outside but to stay safe at the same time. Here are some basic rules:
If, despite being careful, you still get a sunburn, treat it as you would any other kind of burn:
Very severe burns, the kind that produce blisters, are often treated in clinics with dressings. If you're not sure if your burn is severe, have it checked. Do not break burn blisters yourself, as this can lead to a skin infection if not properly treated.
For more information, read our condition factsheet on sunburn.
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