Summer, with its warm weather and sunny days, used to be my favorite season. I loved the long days spent outside, soaking up the sun’s rays, and sharing outdoor activities with friends. However, since my diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis in 2015, my ability to handle the heat and bright summer days has shifted. 

Before discussing why the heat affects my rheumatoid arthritis, I want to address a more pressing concern: wildfires. Living in the West Coast of Canada, I am no stranger to wildfires, we’ve been getting them yearly for awhile now. Climate change is a scary thing that can not be ignored.  

Each year I find myself stuck indoors, weigh downed by fatigue from the poor air quality.  

Wildfires vs Rheumatoid Arthritis

Wildfire smoke significantly impacts individuals with rheumatoid arthritis. Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease, causes chronic inflammation affecting not only joints but also organs like the lungs and heart. Exposure to wildfire smoke can intensify symptoms, adding discomfort or risk for further complications. 

This smoke can trigger respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing. Given that those with rheumatoid arthritis already face heightened risks of respiratory complications due to their immune challenges and systemic inflammation, this is especially concerning. 

Wildfire smoke contains harmful pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and minute airborne particles. These substances can aggravate inflammation in the body, leading to increased symptoms of rheumatoid arthritis for people like me. 

Considering the heightened vulnerability of those with rheumatoid arthritis to inflammation and respiratory complications, it’s crucial to take necessary precautions during periods of increased wildfire activity.  

Navigating Wildfire Season: My Go-to Strategies

To combat the effects of wildfire smoke, especially given my health concerns, I’ve honed a few strategies over the years:  

  • Stay indoors: When wildfire smoke looms, it’s safest to remain indoors. Keep windows and doors closed to prevent smoke from entering your home. 
  • Use air purifiers: Consider using high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters or air purifiers to improve indoor air quality and reduce the presence of smoke particles.
  • Stay updated on air quality: Keep an eye on local air quality indexes. They’ll guide you on when it’s advisable to head outside.
  • Consult with health care providers: For those with rheumatoid arthritis like myself, a chat with a healthcare provider is beneficial. They can offer tailored advice and suggestions based on your health profile. 

Beyond Wildfires

It’s not just wildfire smoke; summer itself can trigger RA symptoms. 

There are a number of things that rheumatoid arthritis patients need to be aware of when it comes to the sun and summer 

Medication Sensitivities

Various medications for arthritis, including Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), drugs with sulfa, and antimalarials, can lead to increased sun sensitivity. Notably, naproxen among NSAIDs has a higher likelihood of causing photosensitivity. Some biologics with an anti-TNF (tumor necrosis factor) agent increase the risk of skin cancer. It is important to wear sunscreen throughout the year, even on overcast days. Additionally, my eyes are extra sensitive to sunlight. I even have to wear sunglasses on cloudy days.   

Swelling and Pain Increases

One big change I notice is how my joints swell up more. Summer makes people with rheumatoid arthritis feel tired because of the heat, wet air, and more inflammation. This means more swelling and pain. It’s frustrating seeing my hands, feet, and other joints get puffy and hurt more when it’s hot outside. This happens a lot to my feet and ankles. 

Increase in Fatigue

Summer is a tough time for me because the heat and humidity make my RA symptoms, especially fatigue, more intense. Hot days naturally drain our energy, and it becomes much harder to get a good night’s sleep when it’s so warm outside. Plus, the heat often makes me less hungry, which means it’s challenging to prepare meals or pick healthier food options. All of this contributes to even more fatigue. 

What to Do About Summer and Rheumatoid Arthritis

The sun can affect everyone differently. If you find it tough, it’s a good idea to be in the sun for short times and always try to have shade nearby. It’s smart to avoid the sun between 10 am and 4 pm since that’s when it’s strongest and hottest. If you have to be outside during these times, make sure to take steps to protect yourself. Having rheumatoid arthritis has made me find new ways to handle summer.

Here are some things I’ve found helpful

Stay Hydrated

Drinking plenty of water is crucial to combat the dehydration that often accompanies heat exposure. Proper hydration helps reduce joint inflammation, alleviate discomfort, and keeps the body functioning optimally. I always carry a water bottle with me and make a conscious effort to drink enough fluids throughout the day. 

Apply Sunscreen Regularly

Even on cloudy days, sun protection is crucial. Some sunscreens are more effective than others. Look for ones with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and choose a high SPF between 30 and 60. Put sunscreen on about 15-30 minutes before going into the sun and reapply every 2-3 hours. Products like lip balms, powders, and CC creams with SPF are good for everyday use and make putting on more sunscreen throughout the day simpler. If you have achy shoulders and hands from arthritis or need to cover hard-to-reach areas, spray sunscreen can be a great choice. 

Seek Shade and Cool Places

When the summer sun is scorching, finding shade or cool places becomes essential. I try to plan outdoor activities during the cooler parts of the day, such as early morning or late evening. When indoors, I ensure my home is well-ventilated and invest in fans or air conditioning to create a comfortable environment. 

Dress for Comfort

The summer season is significantly affected by the right clothing choices when managing rheumatoid arthritis symptoms. I prioritize wearing loose-fitting, breathable fabrics. Additionally, I find it beneficial to wear a hat and sunglasses to shield myself from the direct sun’s rays. Source built-in sun protection in clothing — known as ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). Look for clothing that’s labeled with a UPF of 25 to 50 or higher.  

Modify Exercise Routines

Getting regular exercise is crucial for managing rheumatoid arthritis, but high-impact activities can be tough in the summer. I have switched to low-impact exercises like swimming or water aerobics, which provide a great workout while reducing stress on joints. Alternatively, I engage in indoor exercises, such as yoga or Pilates, during the hottest parts of the day. 

Navigating RA challenges during the summer requires adaptability, but I still find joy in the season. With some adjustments and added precautions, I’ve learned to navigate these warm months. It does take extra planning and self-care, especially with the ongoing wildfires, but I’m determined to appreciate what summer has to offer. 

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