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When the Summer Sun Is Not so Fun for Those With Chronic Illness

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For most people, the summer is something which is looked forward to all year. The light shining on you from the heavens, the exhilaration when you step onto the stoop and feeling of the heat and warmth as the light washes over you; there is truly no other feeling like it.

There is a reason why we are drawn to the sun. It’s because it is an integral part of maintaining our physical and emotional wellbeing. If you need proof of this, just look at seasonal affective disorder (SAD). This is a type of seasonal depression that occurs when an individual doesn’t get enough sun exposure. Eventually the sun deprivation will begin to affect the serotonin levels of the individual’s brain. The resulting affliction is a seasonal depression with the acronym SAD.

For most healthy people the summer sun is an inherently good thing. Unfortunately, this is not always the case, for many who struggle with chronic illness the sun is simply another obstacle they need to fight through daily.

Many people view the sun as a symbol of hope and goodness. We see it as proof that no matter what, we will have one constant in our lives: the sun shining high above us.

Now that “proof” has been all but shattered. What had once caused great exhilaration and happiness, now only brings pain and fatigue. Despite this, we will not give up.

Although the summer is a challenging period for us and most of would love if it simply ended, we are strong and we can fight through these struggles. We are warriors! Though we may seem feeble on the outside, we are stronger than anyone knows. We fight through the pain and fatigue every day, struggling through a world not equipped for us. We are warriors, but even warriors have limits.  So we must never forget to stay mindful of our limits and actively practice self-care.

Heat Intolerance and Chronic illness

You’re all probably wondering what is so bad about the sun for it to cause certain people so much pain. The answer can be summed up in one word: heat.

Temperature is of major importance when talking about the health of someone with chronic illness. I don’t think it will come as a surprise for many that temperature can make or break our day.

For people with chronic illness, one of the best things they can do for themselves is to create a stable environment. There are a variety of ways we can achieve this. We can eat the same food, exercise the same amount and even standardize our sleep schedule. The one thing we cannot control is the temperature outside.

That is why summer is such a difficult time for those with chronic illness. If it’s too hot outside, our body will work overtime and use valuable energy just to cool ourselves off, thus putting more strain on our bodies.

Heat intolerance can affect someone with chronic illness in so many ways. If they overexert themselves in the heat, this puts them at risk for dehydration, which could cause severe fatigue, dizziness and muscular weakness. The heat itself can also affect your stomach and your entire gastrointestinal system, triggering nausea and vomiting. All from being in the summer heat.

As you’ve probably figured out, heat is also a major factor in determining the severity of our symptoms. My condition which is most affected by the heat is systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE).

Let’s review this condition and how this compromises someone with SLE, seeing how they are affected by the heat.

Lupus and the Summer Sun

Systemic Lupus Erythematosus (SLE) is categorized an autoimmune condition. This means that the innumerable number of antibodies inside me, which are supposed to be protecting me, have instead started attacking my healthy tissue.

Now for the fun part, the summer sun and why it’s so bad for us “Lupies.” Usually when someone steps into the direct sunlight, the UV radiation does damage to their skin in a small amount. Luckily most people’s properly functioning immune system does all the work protecting and fixing their skin. That’s where it goes wrong for us Lupies.

Lupus patients don’t have a properly functioning immune system. This results in the possibility of severe sun sensitivity for lupus patients, which occurs in many lupus patients. When they are exposed to too much sun it can worsen their lupus symptoms or even trigger a flare.

The result of a sun exposure depends heavily on the individual patient. The recovery time can range from minutes after getting out of the sun, to causing flares which last for days. For me, the sun sensitivity is moderately severe.

On high UV day, I can develop a mild to moderate sunburn within a few minutes of being in direct sunlight. Due to this, I have had to go on short-term leave from work and have seldom left the house in over a month and a half. Despite this, I am not giving up hope! I am on my medication, and I know it can take more than six months to work. Like everything else, I just must wait, be patient, and rest.

The results of these symptoms are depression, anxiety and social isolation (often due to seasonal affective disorder). There is another reason for the higher incidence rate of depression in lupus patients. That is the lack of proper exercise. This isn’t just referring to gym workouts. It includes all the walking and passive physical activity that you typically get throughout the day.

Gyms can be very troublesome for lupus patient; not just because it’s a temple of overexertion, but also due to the commute. When driving to the gym, the person is exposed to sunlight, depending on the severity of their condition it could trigger a flare severe enough to leave them bedridden. Thus, they are unable to go to the gym or do anything else.

The other cause of this exercise-based depression is a lack of passive activity. This is everything from walking, to reaching the top shelf, to picking a book up off the ground. These are all activities we take for granted, but they are all greatly restricted if you can’t leave your home during the daytime. Then since exercise releases all of the happiness hormones, the chance of depression with these restrictions is high.

Beach Vacations and Lupus

Vacations are an inherently a fun activity. They’re an escape from the daily toils of modern-day life. For our family, the prime vacation spot was the beach. As a result, we went on vacation once a year to various beaches. Sadly, for a person with chronic illness, the combination of the sun and the heat can be very dangerous.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the beach: the rush as the waves washes over you, the feeling of the warm sand between your toes. But sadly, the sun makes it hard to enjoy these little things.

For the first few days of the beach vacation, I would be OK, usually experiencing mild weakness and aches. Then around the third day the sun exposure would usually hit me hard. I would wake up sore, feeling like my body was made of stone and being unable to move. Eventually I would get enough energy to get up and pretend everything was A-OK.  At this time in my life, my family nor I had any idea why I seemed to always get sick on vacations.

After that, my trips to the beach were very short. I usually lasted 30 minutes to an hour before I had to take a break and head back up to the room. In the end, I still had fun. I got to spend time with my family and make wonderful memories. Truly, that’s what matters, making memories with the ones you love.

I hope you’ve learned something new and gained a new view of the sun effects on people with chronic illnesses. Before I go, I want to say this: don’t be afraid to live your life because of pain. Take care of yourself but also live, explore and love. The world wants to know you, so show them your strength and go out into it.

Getty image by lolostock

Originally published: August 11, 2021
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