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Top Beach Hazards: How to Stay Safe on the Sand

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May 25, 2017 -- Planning beach retreats this summer? While sharks may scare you, they’re probably not the most likely danger you’ll encounter.

Beach hazards can vary by location and change over time. Harmful algal blooms, also known as HABs or red tide, are now found in all 50 states. Some experts predict climate change will make the problem worse.

And while the population of great white sharks is coming back in California, the risk of attacks remains low.

So what do you really need to be worried about? Several experts weigh in with their top picks.

Rip Currents

Rip currents are "channels of water moving away from the shore, caused by breaks in sandbars," says Tom Gill, a spokesman for the U.S. Lifesaving Association. They kill more than 100 people a year, he says. The water speed can move from 1 to 2 feet per second up to 8 feet a second, he says. No wonder they can sweep you off your feet.

"Bigger waves and stronger winds can increase the strength of a rip current," Gill says. They’re more common around the times of tide changes, low or high.

Other clues that point to rip currents:

  • A channel of choppy water
  • An area of water of a different color
  • A line of debris, seaweed, or foam moving seaward
  • A break in the wave pattern coming into shore

Check in with a lifeguard to see if rip currents are a problem, Gill says. Many beaches also put up warning flags if conditions are not safe.

If you encounter one, don't panic. Try to float or swim parallel to the shore, sideways to where the waves are starting to break, Gill says. If possible, raise your hands, wave, and call for help.

Sunburn, Skin Cancer

The sun's ultraviolet rays can damage unprotected skin in as little as 15 minutes, the CDC says.

About 34,000 people a year in the U.S. get sunburned so severely they go to the emergency room, according to a 2017 study that analyzed data from 2013.

To cut your chances of sunburn and skin cancer, the CDC says you should wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15, (while the American Academy of Dermatology recommends an SPF of 30 or above). In addition, wear a hat, sun protective clothing if possible, and sunglasses. And seek shade, especially during midday. The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.


Jellyfish stings happen an estimated 150 million times a year. The sea creatures sting with their tentacles. The severity varies, but stings usually bring only minor discomfort, according to the National Ocean Service.

One study found there’s no good research to back up any one specific treatment for jellyfish stings, and the best treatment can vary by type of jellyfish. However, it suggested trying pain relievers you take by mouth or put on your skin, baking soda, and ice packs. Watch for allergic reactions such as trouble breathing.

Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs)

Every U.S. coastal state has reported HABs, also known as red tide. HABs happen when colonies of algae, simple plants that live in seawater and freshwater, grow out of control and make toxins that harm fish and other marine life, birds, and people. The toxins can make the nearby air hard to breathe. Human illnesses caused by HABs are rare but potentially fatal, according to the National Ocean Service.

"When they form dense enough blooms, you can see them as red, yellow, or green colored water," says Vera Trainer, PhD, a research oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center. "Some are harmless," she says, yet she cautions people not to swim in colored water. Surfers in Washington state ignored that advice and had respiratory problems, she says.


Stingray injuries are common, says Chris Lowe, PhD, a professor of marine biology and director of the shark lab at California State University, Long Beach. People accidently step on them, or fisherman catch them and get injured. Its spine or barb has a sharp point that produces venom.

If you get stung, soak the injured area in water as hot as you can stand, for an hour to an hour and a half. Lifeguards often have water heaters to help, Lowe says. The hot water offsets the stingray toxin, which causes the pain, Lowe says. Get medical help. After that, watch the wound for signs of infection such as redness.

How to avoid stingrays? When you enter the water, shuffle your feet, but don't stomp them, Gill says. This increases the chance you will nudge them to move without stepping on them and risking a sting.


Swimming at a beach with lifeguards affiliated with the U.S. Lifesaving Association cuts your odds of drowning to 1 in 18 million, according to the association's calculations.

Swimming and drinking alcohol do not mix, says Gill. Alcohol is involved in up to 70% of teen and adult deaths associated with water recreation, the CDC says.

Carefully entering the water can cut your chance of injury, Gill says. "Enter the water feet first," he says. "Some water is clear, but many bodies of water are not." Diving in headfirst could mean encountering a sandbar -- and a spinal injury.

Choose an adult to be a "water watcher" to keep an eye on your whole group, Gill says.


Sharks trigger fear, but you're 33 times as likely to be bitten by a dog than a shark, according to the International Shark Attack File, a worldwide database launched in 1958 and administered by shark researchers and the Florida Museum of Natural History. In 2016, the researchers there confirmed 81 unprovoked shark attacks worldwide. Not all attacks are lethal, Gill says, especially if they involve hand and foot bites.

"In most cases where people are bitten, they rarely see the shark coming," Gill says. Once attacked, people should try to hit the animal in the eyes, nose and gills, he says. "In many cases, the shark will release." And, he cautions, the worst strategy is to "play dead."

Marine Debris

Discarded plastic bags, nails, syringes, and other trash, can harm marine animals but also be risky for human health, leading to cuts, scrapes, and bruises.

Even common items such as fishing line and rings from six-packs can harm marine animals, making them not able to eat, breathe, or swim, according to the California Coastal Commission.

You can check in with the Environmental Protection Agency for more information about beach cleanliness.

Thunderstorms and Lightning

Beaches are a bad place to be during a thunderstorm because their wide-open spaces offer no protection, says Stephen Leatherman, PhD, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Florida International University, Miami. He issues an annual "Top 10 Beaches" list, ranking beaches on things like water temperature and cleanliness.

To protect yourself in a storm, stow that beach umbrella. "The worst thing to do it hold up an umbrella," Leatherman says. "It creates a lightning rod." Don't stand under any trees that might be nearby, either, he says.

Try to get inside a nearby building. If that's not possible, stand between two buildings. Or take refuge in your car -- as long as it's a hardtop, Leatherman says. On most smartphones, you can get weather alerts from the National Weather Service.

WebMD Health News Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 25, 2017


Tom Gill, spokespersoman, U.S. Lifesaving Association.
Chris Lowe, PhD, professor of marine biology, and director, of the shark lab, California State University, Long Beach.
Vera Trainer, PhD, research oceanographer, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Seattle.
Stephen Leatherman, PhD, professor of earth and environmental sciences, Florida International University, Miami; author, "Top Ten 10 Beaches." list.
CDC: "Home and recreational safety," "Sun safety."
International Shark Attack File: "ISAF 2016 World Wide Shark Attack Summary."
National Ocean Service: "Harmful Algal Blooms," "Ten Dangers at the Beach."
U.S. Lifesaving Association: "2016 National Lifesaving Statistics."
American Academy of Dermatology: "Position Statement on Broad Spectrum Protection of SunScreen Products."
California Coastal Commission: "The Problem with Marine Debris."
Environmental Protection Agency: "Find Information About Your Beach."
Marine Drugs,: “Jellyfish Stings and Their Management: A Review,.” February 2013.

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