Staying Safe in the Surf

Here are 10 things you'll need for a safe time at the beach.

Medically Reviewed by Cynthia Dennison Haines, MD
5 min read

A day at the beach can be, well, no day at the beach. So here are 10 things you need to take with you to fend off nature and return home unscathed -- and maybe even a little happier and more relaxed.

  1. Eagle eyes. "Make sure an adult is constantly watching young children," advises Deborah Mulligan-Smith, MD, an ER doctor and director of the Institute for Child Health Policy in Ft. Lauderdale. Small children tend to slip under silently without flailing or calling out. Children should wear an approved lifejacket, no matter how well they swim. "Waterwings," says Mulligan-Smith, "lose 'em. They do nothing."

  2. Tide tips. Never swim alone or in unsupervised places. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, incidentally, more than three-quarters of drownings take place on unpatrolled beaches. That means that 25% happen even when a lifeguard is on duty, so be sure to keep your eyes open. If a lifeguard is present, he or she may post info about dangerous currents. Don't wait for that. If the water is choppy, murky, or filled with debris, Mulligan-Smith says, come out. If you do find yourself pulled out by a rip current, swim parallel to shore and when the current lets go, head in (rip currents are like rivers within the ocean).

    According to Stephen P. Leatherman, PhD, otherwise known as Dr. Beach for his "Top 10" listings of the best beaches on the Travel Channel, another dangerous deal is called "shore break." This usually happens on steep beaches where the waves break right on the sand. "Shore breaks can slam you down head-first and break your neck," he warns.

  3. Sunscreen. You should bring it to the beach, but apply it beforehand, too. "When you get in the car," Mulligan-Smith advises. "It takes about half an hour to start working." Somehow, the idea has arisen that SPF 45 means you can stay in the sun 45 times longer than without it. "Not true," laughs Mulligan-Smith. "Higher numbers mean more additives, but all sunscreen needs to be applied every two hours even if it's waterproof." She advises slathering rather than dabbing. And don't forget the tops of the feet and behind the ears, she says. "I see horrible sunburns coming into the ER. People think that because they are on vacation, somehow the rules don't apply. One girl from Michigan -- snowy white skin -- got her entire face blistered. She looked like a grilled-cheese sandwich. If you're not afraid of skin cancer, then how about scarring? Her face will always have a brownish discoloration." Mulligan-Smith favors zinc oxide. It's not like the white lifeguard nose stuff from the old days. It comes in colors and even transparent. "I put it on my kids and they don't get burned at all," she says.

  4. Weather wisdom. Lightning, water, exposed area -- not a good combination. Bail at the first flicker. Cloudy day? Apply even more sunscreen! You can get a nasty burn on a gray day.

  5. Fluids. Beaches are hot. You can get dehydrated easily and suffer the spaciness, fatigue, clamminess, or fever of heat exhaustion. Drink plenty of water. Salted sports drinks are OK, but never drink alcohol. Most boating and many swimming accidents (half, in the case of teenage boys) are alcohol-related.

  6. Ice. Besides cooling drinks (and in an emergency, a heat-felled victim), ice keeps picnic foods from growing a batch of sickening critters. Fill jugs with water and freeze or use those prefilled packs. Don't leave the cooler in the trunk -- it's an oven in there!

  7. Vinegar. You might want to pack some household ammonia, too. These take the sting out of jellyfish attacks. "The Portuguese Man of War is the most common," Leatherman says. "They look like iridescent purple balloons. If they are on the beach, they are also in the water. Mulligan-Smith also warns against sea lice -- the polyp stage of the Man of War. The invisible little devils can get in your suit -- the best defense is to hose off. If your child is prone to swimmer's ear, one part rubbing alcohol and one part white vinegar put in the ear before swimming and two hours later can help.

  8. Insect repellent. The most effective repellents contain a chemical called DEET. However, adults don't need more than 30-35% strength; higher concentrations provide no additional protection and should be reserved for times when exposure to insects is very high, or when high humidity or temperatures promote rapid evaporation of repellent from skin. Small children and infants should not use full-strength insect repellent containing DEET (consult a pediatrician on whether it's safe to use a less-concentrated version). Pregnant women should consult their doctor before using DEET products.

    Apply insect repellent sparingly to exposed skin and clothing, but don't be heavy-handed. And avoid putting the product on the face.

  9. First aid kit. The kind from the drugstore is fine, Mulligan-Smith says. And don't forget inhalers if you have asthma, auto-injectors for allergies, and other medications.

  10. Steer clear of sharks! If you aren't acquainted with cocky Australian Steve Irwin, listen to Dr. Beach instead. Leatherman recommends avoiding sharks rather than inviting them. Don't swim at dusk or at night," he says. "That's when sharks can see best, and you can't." Avoid murky water. Don't swim with your dog -- the splashing attracts the wrong crowd. Stay away from deeper areas.

Not only do we need protection at the beach, Leatherman says, the beach needs protection from us. He has started the Healthy Beach Campaign to allow communities to register well maintained beaches -- sort of a Dr. Beach's Good Housekeeping Seal. "The beach is not an ashtray," he says. "And don't sit on the dunes." Even with all this, you may want to come back.