Monday Medical: Don’t bake your skin at altitude | SteamboatToday.com

Monday Medical: Don’t bake your skin at altitude

Susan Cunningham/For Steamboat Today

Monday Medical

Editors note: This is the first article in a five-part series on skin cancer.

Baking a cake is different at altitude. So is getting a sunburn.

The closer you are to the sun, the more intense the UV radiation you receive, which means living in places such as Steamboat Springs can come with risks.

"We're at 7,000 feet," said Dr. Maryann Wall, who is board-certified in otolaryngology, head and neck surgery and facial plastic and reconstructive surgery. "Every thousand feet of elevation gain significantly increases your risk for ultraviolet radiation."

Ultraviolet, or UV, radiation from the sun can cause more than just sunburn: Skin cancer and premature aging of the skin can also result from UV exposure.

In addition to being closer to the sun than other states, Colorado receives 300 days of sunshine each year; has reflective surfaces that increase UV intensity, such as Alpine lakes and snow; and attracts people who like to be outdoors, whether to play in the mountains or to work as ski instructors or ranchers.

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"Your mother wouldn't let you play near the Fukushima reactor in Japan, but that's basically what we're doing, because ultraviolet radiation has consequences," Wall said.

There are two main types of UV rays that impact the skin:

• UVA — these rays have a longer wavelength and penetrate more deeply. They can cause skin cancer and are associated with premature aging of the skin, including wrinkling, freckling and rough texture.

• UVB — these shorter wavelength rays don't penetrate as deeply, but can cause burns and skin cancers.

"We know (UV radiation) causes premature aging of the skin," Wall said. "It increases risks of the three most common types of skin cancer. It increases immunosuppression, so that puts you at risk for other kinds of cancers, not just skin cancer."

It can also impact vision: UV rays can increase risks of macular degeneration, cataracts and snow blindness.

"We have to take it seriously," Wall said.

Wall speaks from experience. Not only has she seen numerous skin cancers in patients, but her family has a history of melanoma: Her parents, two brothers and 13 other relatives have all dealt with the disease.

There are two main types of skin cancer: non-melanoma and melanoma.

Non-melanoma skin cancers include basal cell cancers, which are slower growing and readily curable if caught early, as well as squamous cell cancers, which can spread more quickly. Both tend to occur on people who have acute or chronic sun exposure.

Melanoma skin cancer is less common but the most dangerous. UV rays can cause damage to the DNA in skin cells, resulting in cells that mutate and multiply rapidly to form a malignant tumor.

When treated early, melanoma can almost always be cured. If it's not caught and treated, it can spread.

One in five Americans will contract skin cancer, and most cases are preventable. While Colorado has a high rate of melanoma, many of the melanomas are found at an early stage and, so, are curable.

Prevention is the best cure, which is why it's important to keep the sun's rays from damaging your skin through the use of sunscreen, sun-protective clothing and limiting your exposure.

"Can you imagine if I told you you can prevent breast cancer if you didn't wear a push up bra? All of us would be burning push up bras," Wall said. "Breast cancer is not preventable, as far as we know. Colon cancer is not preventable, as far as we know. But with skin cancer, we can take some control."

Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at cunninghamsbc@gmail.com.

Tips to be sun safe

• Try to avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

• When outside, wear a broad-brimmed hat and UVA/UVB sunglasses.

• Use a broad spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30-50 every day. Apply liberally and frequently on all sun-exposed areas.

• Wear UPF clothing.

• Be aware of the intensity of UV radiation. Apps can help. Also, know that water, snow, sand and concrete reflect and intensify sun.

Test your sun smarts

Take YVMC’s short quiz in May and receive a 15 percent off coupon for UPF gear at Twisted Trails Running Company in downtown Steamboat Springs. All participants will also be entered into a grand prize drawing for head-to-toe UPF gear. No purchase is necessary. The quiz is available at info.yvmc.org/sunquiz.