The Medical Minute: Beach safety reminders for fun in the sun

July 16, 2003

By John Messmer, M.D.
Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center

This summer, millions of people will head to the shore for vacation. If you're going to the beach this summer you'll probably bring beach towels and blankets, beach chairs, coolers, books and games. While anticipating fun in the sun, also remember to consider some items for your safety.

The sun
You're at the beach for a tan, right? The problem is there is no such thing as a safe tan. For white people, skin tans to resist burning. When your skin tans, it signals overexposure to ultraviolet light much as radiation badges in nuclear power plants measure radiation exposure.

The good news is you can still enjoy the beach and the ocean by wearing a good waterproof sunblock with at least a 30 spf rating in the water and reapplying it when dried off. 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, every sunburn increases your risk of melanoma by 20 percent and 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. 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.

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 rarely a shark in the area. Jellyfish tentacles have stinging parts called nematocysts which fire by pressure on them. 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. Benadryl by mouth and hydrocortisone cream 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
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 be living there.

The air
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