The Medical Minute: Summer at the beach

July 07, 2004

By John Messmer
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

What could better than a summer trip to the beach? You're taking a well-deserved vacation or summer break from school, but whether your idea of vacation is a beach blanket and a book or hitting the surf, don't let injury or illness ruin it for you.

You're at the beach for a tan, right? The problem is there is no such thing as a safe tan. When your skin tans, it means there has been overexposure to ultraviolet light. Although meant to protect, the presence of a tan means your skin has already been injured.

The good news is you can still enjoy the beach and the water by wearing a good waterproof sunblock with at least a 30 SPF rating in the water and reapplying it when your skin has dried. Use an umbrella or similar covering plus an opaque shirt and hat when not in the water for further protection. Although dark skinned people have less risk of skin damage, everyone should protect their eyes with UV blocking sunglasses to reduce the risk of cataracts. If possible, avoid the beach from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. when the sun's light is strongest.

White sand reflects more sunlight than green grass, so protect yourself even if you stay in the shade the entire time. Remember, each sunburn increases your risk of melanoma by 20 percent and sun exposure in the teens is the primary cause of wrinkles in middle age.

It's a beautiful ocean and millions enjoy it every summer without incident. To make your trip safe, remember to follow posted warnings. Stay within the designated swimming area. Even a strong swimmer could have trouble and lifeguards need to see you and be able to reach you to help. Beware of rip currents, which pull you away from the shore. They tend to develop around jetties, piers and reefs so stay about 100 feet away from these. If you feel yourself being pulled away, swim parallel to the shore until you get past the point of outward pulling, then swim to shore. If you can't do that, tread water and wave for lifeguard assistance. The United States Lifesaving Association estimates 80 percent of lifeguard rescues involve people caught in rip currents.

Although lifeguards save many people every year, they are not babysitters, so keep a close eye on your 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, crab, stingray or -- on a rare occasion -- a shark in the area. Jellyfish tentacles have parts called nematocysts, which sting when touched. If stung, do not rub or wipe the area or it could trigger more nematocysts. Pour isopropyl alcohol or vinegar over the area first to neutralize them then carefully remove the tentacles with tweezers. Taking Benadryl by mouth and applying hydrocortisone cream to the wound may help the symptoms. Seek medical attention if symptoms continue to increase. Wounds from stepping on horseshoe crabs or from stingrays require medical attention.

The sand 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 be living there.

Fleas and other bugs and insects are usually no more than a nuisance to most people but to minimize your attractiveness to them, avoid bright colors and flowery scents.

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.

Take time to consider safety before your trip this summer so all your memories of the beach will be pleasant ones.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 19, 2009