12 hidden beach dangers you need to take seriously

Many look forward to their annual tropical getaway, with the email notifications turned off and the sunscreen lathered on. But while a relaxing vacation is a must, it’s important to be mindful of possible hidden beach dangers that lurk between the sand and ocean floor.

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Dangers at the beach
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Dangers at the beach

Sinkholes

Kids love to dig in the sand, but the sinkholes they make aren’t as innocent as they first seem. David Greuner, MD, head surgeon and co-founder of NYC Surgical Associates, explains that when holes are dug at the shore, but not filled in completely, a sunset stroll can lead to a potentially painful twisted ankle…or worse. “Sinkholes are extremely unexpected, and, to make matters worse, the sand can fill the hole immediately after somebody collapses,” he tells Reader’s Digest. “This can feel like concrete being dumped on you and can lead to injuries and potentially death from suffocation.” To keep yourself safe, follow the tried-and-true practice of watching where you step.

Jellyfish

It’s important to be wary of jellyfish, especially if you’re splashing in a part of the ocean where they’re rampant. “Contact with a jellyfish’s tentacles can result in a range of painful injuries, such as burns, rashes, or even neurological damage,” Dr. Greuner says. How to avoid them? Jellyfish typically follow the motion of the current and prefer shallow waters. “If there’s an abundance of them, lifeguards usually flag the area to avoid any injuries for swimmers.” Pay heed.

E.coli

The harmful bacteria E.coli 0157 can be found in certain bodies of water, particularly lakes and streams, and is extremely dangerous, especially for children under five years old, says Erica Steele, DNM, ND, CFMP, BCND. In addition to severe stomach cramping and bloody stools, extreme cases can also cause kidney disease or brain damage. “So far, we have not seen documented cases domestically, but for those traveling abroad, care should be taken when swimming in foreign bodies of water,” she adds. E.coli 0157 has also been found in swimming pools. Find out the other hidden pool dangers you need to know about.

Sewage

It is not exactly a pleasant topic, especially when you’d rather be chatting about beachside massages or surfing lessons. However, depending on which part of the world you’re exploring, beach sewage may be a big concern. While plenty of areas are clean and safe, regions of Asia and South America can be more contaminated than you realize. As Dr. Greuner explains, “Any sort of runoff or untreated sewage via humans and animals [enterococcus bacteria] can make beachgoers extremely sick.” To keep yourself—and your family—safe, stick with beaches on the beaten path.

Ear and eye infections

Even if you’ve been frequenting the same beach for decades, various conditions impact the water quality at any given moment. Dr. Greuner says many people contract swimmer’s ear (otitis externa) or an eye infection (conjunctivitis) after spending many hours in the sea. Though there isn’t a surefire way to avoid this, as it can be unpredictable, invest in eye and ear washes to reduce your risk and always pay attention to signs cautioning about water quality. Don’t miss these other tips for having your healthiest summer ever.

Harmful algal blooms

There are thousands of microorganisms and communities in the ocean. While most of these are safe—and beautiful!—Dr. Steele says some pose a threat; algal blooms are naturally produced toxins that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and GI distress. Much like bacteria, it can be difficult to avoid these if the water you’re swimming in is ripe with them, but you can do your best to stay safe by not swallowing the water and always showering after a swim. Check the NOAA Harmful Algal Bloom forecast before taking a dip to be on the safe side.

Dehydration 

When vitamin D is shining down on you, it’s easy to get distracted from your daily routine. While you might usually down plenty of H20 while you’re firing off emails at the office, on the beach, you may not bother to get a refill or, instead, reach for a beer more often than your water bottle. Some dehydration is to be expected during the summertime, but Dr. Steele encourages beachgoers to pay attention, as excessive drought can be dangerous: “Heat exhaustion and heat stroke cause more deaths than floods, lightning, hurricanes, and tornadoes combined.” Look out for these unexpected signs of dehydration.

Sea urchin

Because sea urchins are often hard to detect—they look like coral, after all—it’s all too easy to brush up against these small creatures as you’re splashing about, Dr. Greuner cautions. Even if you didn’t know what they were when you saw them, you’d definitely understand after you make contact. When they sting you, they leave behind tiny black shards that must be removed with tweezers or via a vinegar soak, according to the Merck Manual. Left untreated, the stings can cause joint and muscle pain and rashes.

Cuts 

Shells and rocks can do a number on your feet, causing scrapes and cuts. While salt water can be healing, you could contract an infection from bacteria present in the water, says Tania Elliott, MD, allergist, internist, and chief medical officer. “I always suggest wearing snug-fitting water shoes to protect your feet.”

Undertow

An undertow, also called a rip current, can be extremely dangerous if you don’t pay attention, especially right before hurricane season in September and October. Wear a life jacket if you’re not a confident swimmer, and ensure children are safe, too. If you find yourself caught in one, swim parallel to the beach, not toward the shore, until you’re out of it. Here are more life-saving safety tips from beach experts.

Sunburn 

Okay, so this isn’t exactly a surprise, but it’s an important danger to be mindful of. A really bad burn on day one of your beach vacation can ruin all of your adventures of the week. Remember to buy quality, trusted sunscreen and reapply every hour. You can never wear too much, so when in doubt, reapply. These are the 18 sunscreen mistakes you didn’t realize you were making.

Food spoilage

Packing snacks for the beach is an easy way to save money on vacation, but that hot sun can be unforgiving. That’s why you should pack your food in a cooler and avoid leaving it out in the sun for 30 minutes or more. If you worry about anything overheating, don’t nibble and hope for the best. When in doubt, toss it out. Next, look out for these summer health dangers you’re probably ignoring.

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