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NHS HIGHLAND: Reduce the risks if we get a heatwave

By Dr Tim Allison

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We can watch out for each other in better weather.
We can watch out for each other in better weather.

I recently wrote about how we can look after ourselves and others should there be a heatwave. Perhaps I should have known that this would be a prelude for a drop in temperature and return of stormy weather and rain clouds.

I am still holding out hope for sunny weather during the school holidays and was slightly heartened to see the release of national advice recently about how to deal with hot weather in Scotland. I am sure that we still need to be conscious of how to act should a heatwave arrive, but there is another issue connected with the sun that we should all consider and that is skin cancer.

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Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in Britain. Risk increases with age and for those who have had previous skin cancer.

Exposure to sunlight is a significant risk factor and this could be through spending a long time in the sun or having shorter but more intense exposure to sunlight, for example getting sunburnt. The DNA in skin cells can get damaged by ultra-violet light from the sun and this can lead to cancer which may develop many years later.

Most skin cancers stay around where they start in the skin and don’t spread to other parts of the body. It is important to be aware of the possibility of developing these cancers and we should look out for symptoms such as skin looking unusual, red, itchy or failing to heal for more than four weeks.

Modern treatment with surgery or radiotherapy is extremely effective in curing these cancers so it is important to seek medical advice.

Melanoma skin cancer is also related to sun exposure, but it is different in that it can spread around the body if it is not identified and treated early. That means that it is especially important for us to be aware of symptoms.

Melanomas can develop from an existing mole on the skin or can develop from an area of skin that was previously normal. If we see a new abnormal mole or a mole that seems to be growing or changing, bleeding, crusty or inflamed, then that is the time to seek medical advice. Melanomas can occur anywhere on the body, including under the nails and in pale areas of people with dark skin.

They are though often found on the back, chest and tummy of men and the legs of women. It is not unusual for partners or others to identify a melanoma, especially if it is somewhere on the body that we don’t normally see ourselves.

If we do get a heatwave this summer, we should take care to avoid sunburn and use high-factor sunscreen to help reduce the risk of future skin cancer. We can also take the opportunity with fewer clothes and better weather to watch out for skin cancer for ourselves and our families.

Dr Tim Allison is NHS Highland’s director of public health and policy.

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