The Medical Minute: Beach safety -- fun in the sun

July 27, 2005

By John Messmer
Penn State Family & Community Medicine
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center
Penn State College of Medicine

Summer means a trip to the beach for many people. It's time to pack up the beach chairs, towels and blankets, coolers, books and games. For a safe and fun trip, here are some tips to consider.

The sun
There is no such thing as a safe tan -- either at the beach or via a tanning bed. The skin of fair-skinned people tans to protect against burning, but getting a tan causes damage in the process. Getting a base tan reduces the risk of a burn, but tanning in and of itself harms the skin.

The way to enjoy the beach without a burn or sun damage is to think protection. Use a sun block with at least a number 30 sun protection factor (SPF) rating. Look for one that has both UVA and UVB protection -- so-called "broad spectrum" coverage. Most sun blocks are good at protecting against UVB, the rays that burn the skin, but not all completely block UVA. UVA tans the skin but also causes damage to the structural proteins, the skin's immune system and the DNA of skin cells. Currently available UVA protection includes titanium dioxide and Parsol 1789. Mexoryl is a UVA protectant currently available outside the U.S. for about a decade. Studies show it to be safe and effective, and it can be purchased on the Internet. Just be certain what is purchased also has UVB protection ingredients.

Even waterproof sun block washes off. Apply it first to dry skin. Reapply it to dry skin after sweating, swimming or every few hours. Better yet, even with sun block, cover up with an opaque shirt, a wide brimmed hat and stay under an umbrella. Sand and water reflect sunlight so use sun block even when covered up. If possible, avoid the beach from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. when the sun's rays are strongest. Remember sunglasses to reduce the risk of cataracts.

Darker-skinned people are more resistant to the sun's damage, but not immune. Remember, every sunburn increases the risk of melanoma by 20 percent particularly in young people. Sun exposure in the teens is the primary cause of wrinkles in middle age.

The surf
It's a beautiful ocean and millions enjoy it every summer without incident. Remember to follow posted warnings to be safe. Stay within the designated swimming area. Even a strong swimmer could have trouble and lifeguards need to see every swimmer in order to help. Rip currents tend to develop around jetties, piers and reefs, so stay about 100 feet away from these. When caught in a current, swim parallel to the shore until past the point of outward pulling, then swim to shore or tread water and wave for lifeguard assistance.

Although lifeguards save many people every year, they are not babysitters so keep a close eye on children who may not realize when they are in danger. Waves are unpredictable and a large one can come along suddenly, especially as the tide is coming in. For this reason small children should not be left unattended even at the water's edge, and adults should not swim or surf alone.

Sea life will usually avoid you, but there could be a jellyfish, crabs, stingrays or rarely a shark in the area. Jellyfish tentacles have stinging parts that fire by pressure on them. If stung, do not rub or wipe the area or it could trigger more stings. Recent studies suggest applying heat to jellyfish stings will reduce the effect. Alcohol or vinegar also has been recommended to neutralize the stingers. Medical personnel should evaluate wounds from crabs, coral, stingrays or beach litter.

The sand
It can be hot! Wear shoes or sandals to protect your feet from the heat and from sharp shells and other objects in the sand, particularly if you are diabetic or have poor circulation. One caution -- avoid walking through stagnant water, because parasites may live there.

The air
Fleas and other bugs and insects usually are no more than a nuisance to most people but to minimize your attractiveness to them, avoid bright colors and flowery scents. Insect repellents may be applied after sun block. DEET and picaridin-containing insect repellants work best; just follow the package directions.

Storms can be fascinating to watch at the beach, but storms 25 miles away can produce dangerous lightning, striking literally "out of the blue." If you hear thunder less than 30 seconds from seeing a flash of lightning, leave the beach and go indoors until 30 minutes after the storm passes.

The food
Hot summers can spoil food quickly. Bacteria in milk products, eggs and mayonnaise can reach dangerous levels quickly if allowed to exceed 40 degrees, so either leave them home or consume these foods first. Cooked foods pick up bacteria in handling so they also should be kept cool.

A trip to the beach should be a fun memory and with a little planning, it will be both fun and safe.

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Last Updated March 19, 2009