Summer is a mixed bag for people with lupus! Summer trips mean travelling, and travelling with lupus has many challenges. Travel is exhausting and you have to keep track of your medications, plan travel, and deal with travelling companions who might not “get” it. Sun and warm, humid weather can cause flares, and many fun activities such as hikes or theme parks can be difficult for a lupus warrior to handle.
Yet summer can also be a time for fun and even many beneficial activities for people with lupus. In fact, there are a lot of summer activities that are good for your physical and mental health! So, how do you have good, safe fun in the summer months with lupus?
Sunlight, Sun Protection, and Lupus
Sun protection is essential for people with lupus.
Photosensitivity (sensitivity to light, in this case sunlight, which includes light from the ultraviolet spectrum) is a common problem for people with lupus, sometimes even due to their medications. People with anti-Ro (anti-SSA) and anti-La (anti-SSB) antibodies are extra sensitive to the sun. Sunlight exposure can cause breakouts of rashes or hives, and it also a common trigger for lupus flares.
Summer is a time of increased sunlight, and thus increased exposure to UV light. Add in lighter clothing and activities involving water, and it can make summer a rough time for people with lupus. UV-proof clothing, high-spf sunscreen, and frequent application of sunscreen (especially if one is going into the water often) can help offset this. You can read more about taking care of your skin here.
Water can cool down your body and soothe the skin, but it also intensifies the sun’s rays like a magnifying glass. Water, clouds, snow, and sand also reflect sunlight back onto you, baking you like a potato in foil. It is best to avoid extended exposure to the sun, find shade, and stay clear of summer activities with particularly intense sunlight (such as at noon or in the tropics.) Also, don’t be shy about applying sunscreen. You can read more about the sun, UV rays, and lupus here.
The best sunscreen for a person with lupus should use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, with the higher, the better. It should also protect against UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen can irritate some people’s skin, but there are many formulations that may be easier for your skin. Some also contain moisturizers and lotions, and some are waterproof. Try a few and find what works best for you and your skin.
If you are worried about having a vitamin D deficiency due to the sunscreen, taking supplements can make up for it. You can read more about vitamin D and lupus here.
The Benefits of Swimming and Lupus
In short, swimming is fantastic for people with lupus in many ways:
First, swimming is a very good exercise that strengthens the body and the lungs. Like walking and running, it really gets the heart pumping! Unlike walking and running, however, the water helps support the joints and it can be easier for people with lupus and rheumatoid arthritis. This is because you don’t have to deal with the full force of gravity pulling down on the joints. Aside from just exercise, swimming or floating in water helps take the load off the joints, giving the various tissues a break from the strain and easing pain.
No major issues have been reported for swimming or other water-based activities for people with cutaneous lupus or skin symptoms. Most rashes and other issues can be linked to sun exposure. However, it is not a good idea to swim with any sort of open sore, and dirty, polluted water should be avoided.
A nice little side benefit of using swimming as exercise is that, because it’s easier and can be less painful than other methods, people are more likely to stick with it. As long as people stick with a basic routine of exercise, they gain the benefits.
Regular exercise, such as what one does in the pool, helps build up muscle and support the body better, leading to less pain and a healthier immune system. If you have the opportunity to use a pool, especially a heated pool, it can help you get your exercise in.
What about Heated Water and Lupus?
Hot weather is a well-known trigger for flares, but heated pools, hot tubs, and hot springs can be very good for people with lupus. The support of the water and the warmth on the joints helps improve blood flow and ease pain. Minerals, such as those found in natural hot springs, may or may not also help – but the main factor here is the heat. Normally, for pain, cold is used – however, heat, especially hot (or rather, warm,) water, relaxes the body and the muscles and soft tissue surrounding the joints, loosening them up and improving blood flow and, thus, leads to pain relief. Pain relief from hot tubs and hot springs is a well-known benefit.
However, water intensifies sunlight exposure, so protecting yourself from UV light is even more essential than ever. Swimming at night or swimming in indoor or well-shaded pools is an easy remedy.
It is also important to keep in mind that hot springs or heated pools can improve blood flow too much, leading to lightheadedness and fainting. People with lupus can be more vulnerable to overheating. It is important to only enjoy these features for a limited amount of time, and then allow yourself time outside of the heated area to cool off.
Some people have reported that cold water swimming (such as in the ocean,) was also good for their lupus. Cold water ‘tenses up’ the muscles and tissues of the body, which can lead to increased pain. Cold weather can also cause flares. However, cold numbs the nerves that sense pain and is known to relieve inflammation. If you enjoy swimming, it might not be a bad idea to try out both!
A Lupus Warrior’s Takeaway
Despite the heat and the sun, summer can be a wonderful time for people with lupus. Just follow a few simple rules:
- Take your medications throughout the summer, as they can prevent flares from occurring.
- Do your research, make a travel plan, find activities that you can do without too many issues, and make sure you pack whatever you need.
- Make sure to stay hydrated. Cool beverages are ideal, with water being very good and electrolyte-rich beverages such as fruit juices even better. Avoid alcohol as it is not very good for people with lupus.
- Find a sunscreen that works for you and use it liberally.
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