Who doesn't like a little fun in the sun and some time on the beach? If your idea of relaxation involves sun lotion and sandy toes, don't toss all caution to the wind: There's plenty of danger lurking and ready to strike if you're not prepared. Drowning? Skin cancer? How about a painful sting from a submerged sea creature?
Before you slather on the SPF and tune out the worries of the world, familiarize yourself with the top 10 beach hazards on our list. You may be glad you did.
When the erroneously dubbed "unsinkable ship" struck an iceberg and sank on her maiden voyage in April of 1912, some 1,500 of the Titanic's passengers perished from hypothermia because of the frigid waters.
Indeed, serious complications can develop when the body's core temperature hits 90 degrees, and at 86 a person falls unconscious. So the colder the water, the shorter the time you can stay alive. Survival time can vary, too, based on things like body size and body fat content (heavier people cool more slowly).
Shivering and chattering teeth can be the first telltale signs of hypothermia. Others are: shivering, cold, blue or paling skin; mental confusion; slurred speech; enlarged pupils; and weak pulse and slowed breathing.
To stall off hypothermia if you're stranded at sea, don't make the common mistake of swimming or treading water, thinking that will keep you warm. Instead:
- Float as motionless as possible, keeping your head above water to minimize heat loss. A life preserver can help you do that, and keep you afloat if you lose consciousness.
- Assume the fetal position, also known as the "heat escape lessening posture" or huddle closely in a circle with any others in the water; place children in the middle to lend them additional body heat.
- If a boat is in the vicinity — even a capsized or swamped one — get in or on it (try to remove as much of your body from the water as possible).
To save a hypothermia sufferer, call for medical assistance and then take these first-aid steps to help the person regain heat:
- Gently move the person to shelter and warmth. The victim shouldn't walk. This will reduce the likelihood of cold, stagnant blood dropping the body's core temperature.
- Carefully remove the victim's wet clothing.
- Wrap the person in blankets. If available, put warm-water bottles or other gentle heat sources under the blanket on the person's neck, chest and groin.
- Don't put an unconscious hypothermia sufferer in a bathtub.
- Don't give the person anything to drink — not even hot liquids.
- Don't rub the victim's skin (especially not with snow).
The odds of drowning at a lifeguard-protected beach are slim, but swim where no guard is stationed and your odds of drowning are many times greater, according to national statistics.
Lifeguards made more than 54,000 rescues at U.S. beaches in 1999, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association (USLA). And only 11 people drowned at guarded areas.
What can you do to avoid a scare — and the chance, however small, of being that one unlucky statistic among millions?
Talk to a nearby lifeguard and ask, "What are the conditions?" and "Where's the best place to swim?" suggests Newport Beach, Calif., paramedic Bob Pingle.
And follow these additional tips from the USLA:
- Swim Near a Lifeguard. Otherwise, you're gambling with your life.
- Know How to Swim. Learning to swim, and teaching children the skill while they're young, is one of the best defenses against drowning.
- Never Swim Alone. That way, one person can help or signal for assistance if the other meets with trouble. If no one swims with you, at least have someone watching from the shore.
- Don't Fight the Current. Some 80% of rescues are due to rip currents. Don't swim against their pull, but parallel to the shore.
- Swim Sober. Alcohol can impair swimming ability and lure people into unreasonable risks.
- Don't Float Where You Can't Swim. Non-swimmers can drown quickly if they fall off an inflatable raft. Be aware that even close to shore, there can appear sudden deep spots called "in-shore holes" that can endanger a non-swimmer who just wants to wade.
- If You Dive, Protect Your Neck. Check for depth and obstructions before diving, and always extend your hands in front of your head. And never turn your back to the ocean; watch for oncoming waves so they don't catch you off-guard.
Relax. Seems like a natural when you're lounging on the beach. But when you're getting dragged out to sea by a runaway rip current, reflex might say "panic" Don't. Lifeguards say it's better to "go with the flow."
Rip currents are responsible for an estimated 80% of lifeguard rescues at U.S. beaches, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
The currents (commonly referred to as rip tides, though they're technically not tides) are formed when wave water converges into a narrow river traveling seaward in a rush. Even the strongest swimmer can be overwhelmed by a rip current, lifeguards warn, because outsmarting a rip — not outswimming it — is the key to staying alive.
Here's what you should do: Tread water and call and wave for help. Or if you can, swim parallel to the shoreline until you're out of the current, which will likely measure 50 feet to more than 50 yards wide.
If you can recognize a rip, you might be able to avoid getting trapped in the first place. Look for a foamy or choppy sea surface, dirty water from sand being churned from the ocean bottom, and waves breaking farther out to sea on both sides of the rip.
Head injuries and broken arms and legs from boardwalk run-ins total about 210,000 in a year, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.
What to do? Go slow and look out for each other, experts say. And to minimize injuries if you do crash, wear the right protective gear for your sport.
For bicyclists who are involved in about 600,000 injuries a year, that means wearing a proper helmet.
For inline skaters, for whom the injury rate is estimated at 100,000 annually, the International Inline Skating Association recommends the following gear to skate smart: helmet, wrist guards, elbow pads, and knee pads. The same gear can protect those on skateboards or scooters.
The skating association also says to master the basics of striding, stopping and turning; skate under control at all times; announce your intentions — "passing on your left," for instance — and always yield to pedestrians.
And, if you're just planning a good old-fashioned stroll along the boardwalk, be sure to wear shoes and avoid one of the most common beach injuries: splinters in unprotected feet.
Wearing shoes while on the boardwalk, as well as on the beach, can also prevent three additional top-ranking injuries: foot burns from stepping on hot coals left behind from someone's barbecue; cuts from treading on broken bottles from last night's party; and stubbed toes suffered en route from the parking lot to the beach.
Protect your neck. It's this straight-forward message that has supplied deep meaning to the life of Chris McAleer, a 29-year-old ex-surfer who talks to kids about how to prevent what happened to him from happening to them.
For McAleer, a day goofing off in the waves and enjoying some somersaults turned tragic five years ago when a powerful wave knocked him off his board and onto his head and left him paralyzed.
"It felt like God turned the switch off in the back of my neck, and I was unable to move my hands or arms or legs," McAleer recalls of the day that he became destined to live out his life in a wheelchair.
McAleer is, unfortunately, one of many people who suffer cervical-spine injuries at the beach each year.
McAleer, who works with "Project Wipeout", a safe-surfing education program, spreads this safer-surfing message: "Know the ocean's depth where you are surfing and about any sandbars in the area, and if you fall off your board, always protect your head."
"If you're not prepared, it's like getting hit by a truck," warns Eric Ethans, a lifeguard at Newport Beach in California.
Beyond knowing how to swim and swimming near a lifeguard and with a buddy, Project Wipeout, founded by Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, offers these additional tips on preventing spinal-cord trauma:
- Don't dive headfirst into the waves from the beach because the water might be shallow.
- Don't jump or dive into the water from a pier or rock jetty because the water might be much more shallow than it looks.
- If you're bodysurfing or boogie boarding, always keep your arms in front of you to protect your head and neck.
- Stay out of the "surf zone" where the waves break and are most forceful. If you find yourself in the zone, duck under the wave.
- If you're in trouble, call or wave for help.
If you see someone who has possibly suffered a spinal injury, the U.S. Lifesaving Association says to follow these steps:
- Call a lifeguard or phone 911.
- Tell the injured person to hold his or her body — and especially the head and neck — still.
- And help the person to maintain the same position until paramedics arrive.
- In the water, do your best to keep the person still while maintaining an open airway.
If you're in a boat without a life jacket, you could find yourself up a killer creek without a proverbial paddle.
In 1999, there were 655 boating fatalities — all the result of boaters not wearing lifejackets. Hence the slogan for a North American Safe Boating Campaign: Boat Smart From the Start: Wear Your Life Jacket.
The rules of the road apply to the sea: For one, don't drink and drive — or even ride in — a boat.
A boat operator with a blood alcohol level above .10 percent (a level at which a car's driver is considered drunk in all 50 states) is about 10 times as likely to be killed in a boating accident than someone who hasn't been drinking.
"Just about every boat rescue that I've been involved in has had some sort of alcohol involved with it — whether it's the operator or just the people on board," says lifeguard Josh Van Egmond.
Here are some additional safety tips from boating experts:
- Boat with a friend. Two boats are safer than one in case you get in trouble and need to be towed to shore.
- Watch a weather forecast and know water conditions before shipping out.
- Have plenty of drinking water onboard and, if possible, an air horn, standard first-aid kit, fire extinguishers, and a VHF radio so you're prepared to call for help.
- Tell someone where you're going and when you expect to return.
- Stay within your boat's passenger capacity.
- Know whether your passengers can swim.
- Stay near the coastline in case there is an emergency.
- Go out with a full tank of fuel and use no more than a third of a tank to get to your destination, reserving plenty for the way back.
- Follow up-to-date navigational charts.
- Watch water-skiers or others your boat is towing.
- Shut off engines when swimmers are nearby.
Groups such as the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary and the American Red Cross offer more than 2,000 safe-boating courses. Find one near you by calling the BoatU.S. Foundation at 1-800-245-2628 or visit the BoatU.S. website.
In a time when its air was perceived as purer even than mountain air, novelist Jane Austen described the seashore in her novel Sanditon as the panacean pleasure: "The sea air and sea bathing together were nearly infallible, one or the other of them being a match for every disorder of the stomach, the lungs or the blood. They were anti-spasmodic, anti-pulmonary, anti-septic, anti-billious and anti-rheumatic."
Eighty-some years after Austen penned these words, the ocean water and the fresh breeze that were once perceived as the ultimate summer tonic are now falling sick themselves.
Swim in water polluted with human and animal waste and you can develop symptoms such as stomachache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea or flu-like symptoms such as fever, sore throat and coughing. In highly polluted waters, people can be exposed to hepatitis, cholera and typhoid fever.
How are swimmers exposed to sickness-causing bugs? By swallowing contaminated water, mostly, but in other cases it's the result of direct exposure to bacteria via the skin, eyes or an open wound.
While some beaches post "No Swimming" or "Water Contaminated" signs to warn people away when pollution reaches unhealthy levels, don't count on signs alone to tip you off. Not all states have sufficiently stringent pollution monitoring and warning systems, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, (NRDC) which studies beach-water quality.
You can find out if your favorite beach is monitored regularly and posts swimming advisories by visiting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's BEACH program website.
For more water quality information, go to the NRDC's website.
Don't see signs at your ocean escape? Still, you're less likely to get sick if you follow this rule-of-thumb recommendation from John McCord, manager of education at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.: Don't swim for 72 hours after it rains, especially in urban areas. Explains McCord, "Every time it rains, all that pollution — all that motor oil, all those chemicals that are on our roadways as well as in our gutters — ends up coming down our storm drains and (into) the ocean."
In addition to these tips, you can play an important part in the pollution solution: Conserve water, keep septic systems working smoothly, dispose of boat sewage and trash when you get back on shore, dispose of pets' waste properly, and use natural substances like compost to fertilize your garden.
While they haven't achieved the film celebrity of sharks, jellyfish — colorless, tentacled creatures — are far more likely than sharks to hurt humans, says John McCord, manager of education at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.
More correctly called "sea jellies" these creatures range from a couple of inches to three feet across and have long, spindly tentacles that pack a sometimes painful sting.
Typical stings are pretty mild, bringing on a burning sensation and rash that can go away within a few minutes. Get out of the water, recommends McCord, if you feel a bee-like sting — calmly and slowly, though, to avoid getting stung again by the same critter.
Go to a lifeguard, who might rinse the area with salt water and apply vinegar to neutralize the venom.
Some types of jellies, such as sea wasps found in Australia and Portuguese man-o'-wars found on the East Coast of the United States and in other parts of the world, can emit a toxic venom that can be serious, or in rare cases — fatal.
The stingray is also a venomous creature. Its sting, which usually is provoked by stepping on its back, can be very painful for up to two days. Seek medical attention from a lifeguard or a doctor; something as simple as applying very hot water to the painful area can give some relief.
Better yet, avoid getting stung in the first place: shuffle your feet as you wade into a sandy-bottomed area. That keeps you from stepping on the stingray's back and gives the animal a chance to swim away.
The so-called "stingray shuffle" works, McCord explains, because the rays "don't want to sting you any more than you want to be stung."
Heat and humidity can prove deadly when the body's normal process for evaporation of sweat is pushed beyond its capability to cool.
So mind your stay-cool basics, such as wearing light clothes and chilling out indoors or under a beach umbrella when the sun is highest in the sky.
Another two keys for coping when things get hot-hot-hot: Drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration and don't overdo the exercise.
If you feel faint or get muscle cramps, give your body the shady break it's begging for or you could suffer one of these more serious heat hazards:
- Heat Exhaustion. Symptoms include heavy sweating; weakness; cold, pale and clammy skin; fainting; and vomiting. Sufferers should lie down in a cool place, loosen their clothing, apply cool and wet cloths, drink sips of water, and seek medical help if nausea or vomiting occur.
- Heat Stroke (Sun Stroke). Symptoms of this life-threatening medical emergency can include a high body temperature (106 degrees and higher); hot, dry skin; a rapid, strong pulse; and sometimes unconsciousness. Call 911 or get the victim to a hospital right away. While awaiting medical help, DON'T give the victim anything to drink, but try a cool bath or sponging to reduce his body temperature.
For young children, the elderly, and those who are sick or overweight, it's especially important to keep cool and thirst-quenched because these folks tend to be hit hardest by the heat.
If you're on a fluid-restricted diet or have any medical condition, ask your doctor for the best stay-cool tips for protecting your health when temperatures soar.
Rendered as "the glorious lamp of Heav'n" in Virgil's Aeneid — and for decades idolized by sunbathers looking to give their skin a golden blush — the sun these days is heeded in a different light: the rays that tan can also deliver a potentially deadly cancer to the one that suns.
Consider this estimate: as many as half of all Americans who live to age 65 will have at least one bout with skin cancer, securing the disease's rank as the most common form of cancer in the United States.
But don't despair. Caught early and treated promptly, skin cancer is almost 100 percent curable.
Better tidings still: Taking simple steps like wearing the right sunscreen can help prevent skin cancer in the first place.
These sun safety steps are just the ounce of prevention to help stave off the potentially serious disease:
- Try to avoid the sun between the hours of 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
- While enjoying the great outdoors, stay in the shade or wear protective clothing, such as a broad-brimmed hat, long sleeves, and sunglasses with UV protective lenses.
- Confused about choosing a sunscreen? Look for one that says it protects against both the sun's UVA and UVB rays and has an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 15 or greater.
- Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going out and reapply it every two hours, even more often if you're swimming or sweating.
And don't neglect to wear sunscreen on cloudy days, says Brett Coldiron, M.D., a Cincinnati dermatologist and founder of that city's Skin Cancer Center. The fact that it's cloudy or cold out doesn't mean there is any less UV radiation.
While most skin cancers appear after age 50, people should be protected from the sun's radiation starting in childhood because even one severe sunburn, at any age, can increase cancer risk.
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