Staying Healthy and Safe at the Beach
While summer beach days conjure images of blue skies, warm sunshine and lazy days watching waves lap at the shore, the beach also poses significant risks.
Leaving food out in the hot sun can cause spoilage and sometimes gastrointestinal infections. Staying in a wet bathing suit increases your risk of urinary tract infections, yeast infections and rashes. And sand and water can also be abrasive and irritate the skin.
Meghan L. Penn, a physician’s assistant at Henry Ford Health System, has seen many patients who have encountered hiccups that ruined their summertime fun. From the run-of-the-mill summertime nuisances mentioned above to more serious and even life-threatening ailments such as heat exhaustion and heat stroke, Penn has seen it all.
Here are five summer threats that can spoil your holiday — and tips for how to protect yourself:
- Sun. UV radiation is a big hazard at the beach, Penn says. Unfortunately, pain and peeling aren’t the only complications. Exposure to the sun’s harmful rays increases the risk of skin cancer. Protect yourself by slathering broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 on all exposed areas and reapply every two hours. Cover up, wear a broad-brimmed hat and consider wearing sun-protective clothing that has an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating.
- Swim. Rip currents or high-tide conditions present dangerous swimming conditions, so it’s important to know your limits as a swimmer, avoid rough waters and pay attention to any warnings that are posted, like the red-yellow-green flag system used by all Michigan State Parks with Great Lakes beaches. “It is also important to swim in areas with a lifeguard on duty, especially if you are by yourself and no one else can watch you and be accountable for your safety,” Penn says. Swimmer’s ear is another common swim-related complication. Over-the-counter drops can help dry up the ear canal, and wearing earplugs can help prevent water from accumulating in the inner ear. If you are headed to the ocean, beware of jellyfish, too. Even if you don’t have an immediate reaction, it’s a good idea to see your provider if you are stung. Delayed reactions are possible and may require prescription steroids.
- Sand. Watch where you step. Not everyone is courteous with trash and it’s not uncommon to spot broken glass. Naturally occurring objects like sticks or sharp shells can also cause injuries. Penn’s advice: Wear water shoes. Not only will they protect you on the sand, they’ll also help you avoid cuts from corals, rocks, and creatures with sharp exteriors like mussels in the water. And stay away from trash cans since they tend to attract stinging insects.
- Sport. More people experiment with extreme sports in the summer months, so concussions from participating in activities like tubing, wakeboarding or water skiing tend to crop up. Live on a lake? Only drive boats and jet skis if you have completed the proper training and are able to maintain sufficient distance between yourself and other boats when you’re in motion. “People can fall out of the tube or off skis and boards easily so keeping a safe distance will allow you time to react, slow down and change your course to prevent further injuries,” Penn says.
- Sweat. Sweat attracts insects, including mosquitoes. Steer clear of still water (mosquitoes lay their eggs in standing water) and wear repellent. Too much sweat or none at all? Your body’s natural cooling system may be shutting down and you’re at high risk of overheating. “High heat can lead to dehydration and even worse, heat stroke,” Penn says. Thirst, fatigue and cramps are the first signs of trouble, followed by nausea, rapid heartbeat and high fever. Your best bet: Stay out of the heat, especially when exercising; drink plenty of fluids, which helps you perspire so you dispel body heat effectively; and go easy on alcoholic beverages and soft drinks, which can further dehydrate you.
The bottom line: Know the risks present on the beach and do your best to avoid them. “Encourage your family and friends to be smart, follow appropriate safety precautions and wear sunscreen when outside – even if it’s cloudy,” Penn says. “UV radiation can still penetrate the skin and cause sunburns and damage to healthy skin cells.”
If you get stung, bit or otherwise injured at the beach and your symptoms and pain are not subsiding, see a doctor as soon as possible.