Mountainous Melanoma! Elevated Erythema! It’s High Altitude Sunburn!
September 1, 2010
By Guest Author

Beach season may be drawing to a close in the Northern Hemisphere, but it’s not too late to get a really nasty sunburn, especially if you’re traveling to a high-altitude area. A study conducted by the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine suggests an approximate 8 to 10 percent increase in ultraviolet intensity for every 1,000 feet of elevation across the studied altitudes. UV-B intensity decreases as light moving toward the Earth is scattered, reflected and/or absorbed. The higher the altitude, the more intense the UV-B light exposure can damage unprotected skin.

If you are hiking at 8,500 feet, you are exposed to almost 60% more sun than you would be at the beach. It’s no surprise, then, that at higher elevations, people who normally tolerate the sun well, may not, and people who burn easily at the beach are at severe risk. In less than twenty minutes, fair-skinned people may notice their skin becoming red and sore, even if they are lightly shaded by trees overhead. Reflected light from snow or water aggravates the situation even more, as many vacationing skiers have found to their chagrin.

With the increased exposure to UV-B, the expected annual non-melanoma skin cancer rate for year-round residents at 8,500 feet is estimated to be approximately 115 percent greater than those living at sea level at the same latitude.

So it’s not just leisure travelers who need to take precautions. Expats should know that living at high altitudes and suffering repeated sunburns can have lasting effects. The National Institutes of Health reminds us that living at high altitudes is a definite risk factor for melanoma or skin cancer.

Take extra precautions when traveling or living at elevations significantly higher than sea level. Be sure to pack sunscreen (SPF 70!), and apply it often and liberally. And don’t forget to pack your sunglasses—intense sunlight is damaging to the eyes too. More on this important issue later.

Author: Melissa Haertsch
Melissa Haertsch, a guest contributor to the Healthy Travel blog, is a freelance writer specializing in healthcare, travel and fine food. She favors outdoor-related journeys, which she launches from her home in the Endless Mountains of Pennsylvania.

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