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6 Reasons to Beware of the Beach

From heat stroke to jellyfish to sunburn, keep these dangers on your radar for your next summer beach day


spinner image warning sign of a red flag at a beach
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Summer’s in full swing. For many of us, that means spending the day at the beach.

But the beach isn’t all fun and relaxation. We may fear lurking sharks when we dive into ocean waters, but shark attacks are extremely rare. Other health problems are much more common — from heat stroke to jellyfish to sunburn. It’s smart to go in prepared, so you can focus on having a good time.

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Here are six dangers to know about before your next beach day.

1. Heat illness

Heat illness is a spectrum of conditions that occur when the body can no longer cool itself down. “This can be seen in high heat conditions, often made worse when there is high humidity or during vigorous exercise,” says Lea Walters, M.D., chair of emergency medicine at the Loma Linda University School of Medicine in California.

Heat cramps — painful muscle spasms in the legs and abdomen — are often the first hint that you’ve lost too much fluid, salt or both, notes the National Weather Service.

Next is heat exhaustion. As you continue losing water and salt, you may notice symptoms like headache, nausea, dizziness and irritability. It’s vital to move to a cooler area and sip cool water. Otherwise you may develop heat stroke.

Heat stroke is the most serious heat-related illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the body temperature can climb to 106 degrees Fahrenheit within 10 to 15 minutes. This can cause confusion, slurred speech, seizures, a strong and rapid pulse, and loss of consciousness.

Heat stroke is a severe medical emergency, and delaying treatment can be fatal.

Anyone can get heat stroke, but older adults, people with high blood pressure and those taking water pills (diuretics) have an increased risk.

To keep heat illness from wrecking your beach day, stay hydrated and take regular breaks from the heat, suggests Michael D. Levine, M.D., an emergency medicine and medical toxicology physician with UCLA Health in Los Angeles.

2. Sunburn

Sunburn is an inflammatory reaction to ultraviolet (UV) radiation damage. Symptoms like skin redness and tenderness typically start about four hours after sun exposure, with pain peaking after 48 hours.

But the damage lingers long after the sunburn fades. “In addition to the discomfort they cause, sunburns significantly increase our risk of skin cancer,” says Lauren Eckert Ploch, M.D., a dermatologist in Augusta, Georgia.

In fact, sunburn is the leading cause of many types of skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. And it only takes five or more sunburns to double your risk of melanoma, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

“The best way to avoid a sunburn is to regularly apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen while at the beach,” Eckert Ploch says. Look for a sunscreen that’s water-resistant, with an SPF of 30 or higher. Be sure to slather it on every two hours, or after swimming or sweating.

“I also recommend using sun-protective clothing and a hat, plus staying under a shade during peak sun exposure times,” Eckert Ploch says. Your risk of sunburn increases when the sun is strongest — between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., notes the American Academy of Dermatology.

3. Red tide

A red tide is a common term for a harmful algal bloom (HAB) that turns the water red. It’s found along every U.S. coast, but it’s most common in the Gulf Coast.

Algae are plant-like organisms that live in saltwater and freshwater. Most algal blooms are beneficial, providing a major source of energy for the ocean’s creatures. But when algae grow out of control, they can have harmful effects on people, fish, marine mammals and birds, according to the Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Ocean Service.

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Red tides, so-named because the bloom turns the water red, are caused by an algae called Karenia brevis. This algae produces a potent toxin called brevetoxin, which kills fish and makes shellfish dangerous to eat.

According to NOAA, the toxin can also make the surrounding air difficult to breathe. “This is especially true for people who suffer from asthma, but it may cause severe problems in anyone with respiratory disease,” Walters says.

Inhaling red tide toxins can cause symptoms even in otherwise healthy people. Symptoms usually include coughing, sneezing and teary eyes, according to the Florida Department of Health

“Most beaches will put up warning signs that say ‘Don’t go in the ocean, red tide,’ things like that,” Levine says. “If you see a red tide warning, that should be a big clue not to go into the ocean."

4. Jellyfish

Jellyfish are transparent sea creatures that are made up of 95 percent water. They’re fascinating to watch move around in the ocean, but get too close and you’ll likely get stung.

Jellyfish sting with their tentacles. When a jellyfish senses danger, its tentacles shoot out mini needle-like stinging cells. Once these cells penetrate your skin, venom is released. Cue intense pain.

Thankfully, most jellyfish species are more of a nuisance than a medical emergency. “If you’re standing in the surf and you get stung by a jellyfish, it’s going to hurt, but it’s not going to be dangerous,” Levine says.

Still, it’s best to be cautious. Some jellyfish stings can cause serious symptoms such as shock, chest pain, breathing difficulty and changes in pulse. While rare, certain jellyfish stings can be fatal. Some species of box jellyfish, including the Indo-Pacific box jellyfish, are especially dangerous. This lethal jellyfish is primarily found in coastal waters off northern Australia and throughout the Indian and Pacific oceans.

If you do get stung, start by plucking off any remaining tentacles with tweezers. Then, soak the affected skin in hot, but not scalding, water. Aim for 110 to 113 degrees Fahrenheit. Keep the skin immersed until the pain eases, typically within 20 to 45 minutes. Apply 0.5 to 1 percent hydrocortisone cream or ointment to the sting twice a day to treat itching and discomfort.

5. Melioidosis

Melioidosis is a potentially fatal disease caused by Burkholderia pseudomallei, a bacteria found in contaminated soil and water. You can get the disease by inhaling or ingesting contaminated soil or water or by absorbing it through a cut in your skin, Walters says.

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It can take two to four weeks to notice symptoms, and the symptoms vary according to the infection type, Walters says.

An infected cut may become swollen and painful, and turn into an open sore. If the infection spreads to the blood, symptoms can include fever, headache, joint and abdominal pain, and dizziness. Meanwhile, a lung infection from inhaling the bacteria may cause cough, chest pain, fever, headache and loss of appetite.

If the infection isn’t treated, it can spread throughout the body, causing fever, weight loss, stomach or chest pain, muscle or joint pain, headache or seizures. It can even infect the nervous system or brain. Eventually, this may lead to death.

Melioidosis is typically a disease of tropical climates and is often seen in Southeast Asia and northern Australia. However, B. pseudomallei was recently found in soil and water samples taken from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in the United States. The CDC issued an alert in July 2022, asking people to be on the lookout for signs and symptoms of melioidosis.

The CDC also recommends taking precautions if you’re traveling to areas where B. pseudomallei is common. Precautions include avoiding contact with soil or muddy water and covering open wounds with waterproof bandages.

While anyone can get melioidosis, certain health conditions can increase your risk. These include diabetesliver diseasekidney disease, cancer, chronic lung disease and thalassemia (a genetic blood disorder). Take special care if you have any of these health conditions and are traveling to an area with B. pseudomallei.

6. Drowning

There are an estimated 4,000 fatal drownings in the United States every year, and drowning is a leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 4, per the CDC.

Drownings can happen in any body of water, but oceans are especially risky. “The ground under the water is often uneven and can cause trips and falls, or submersion in unexpectedly deep water,” Walters notes. And it’s easy to get surprised by a wave and be swept out to sea.

Knowing how to swim is vital for lowering your odds of drowning. However, even strong swimmers can get tired from treading water. “Swimming in the ocean takes a lot of energy and strength, and some people drown from fatigue,” Levine says.

Wearing a life vest, swimming with a buddy and choosing swimming sites with lifeguards can help you stay safe in the water.

spinner image sign on a sand dune at the beach that reads beware of jellyfish
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Does Peeing on a Jellyfish Sting Actually Work?

It may have helped Monica when she was stung on an episode of Friends, but in real life, peeing on a jellyfish sting does nothing for pain. It may even make it worse, Walters notes.

As the theory goes, ammonia and other compounds found in urine help neutralize the venom that gives the jellyfish sting its bite. The truth is, peeing on a jellyfish sting can cause stinging cells to release even more venom. The reason? Urine is mostly water. Water — with the exception of hot water and seawater — can cause the stinging cells to activate and intensify the sting.

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