Most of us go to the beach to relax and have fun — not to worry about sunburn and jellyfish. But time spent at the ocean shore does involve some health and safety hazards. The good news? Virtually all are preventable. So a quick read on the risks and a few easy precautions can help keep everybody safe and happy.
Avoiding water hazards at the beach
Sensible precaution No. 1 is to respect the immense force of nature in which you and your family are frolicking. It’s especially important to know your limits. If you’re a strong swimmer and you’re wading in calm water, your risk is low. If you’re not such a great swimmer, pay attention to signs of danger — literally. Many beaches use a system of signal flags developed by the United States Lifesaving Association to warn about surf conditions, hazardous marine life and dangerous currents.
Drowning isn’t the sole danger from rough surf; being rolled ashore in a violent wave can mean broken bones.
Keeping kids safe at the beach
If you’re taking little ones to the beach, more care is in order. Outside Magazine has some good advice for introducing young children to the sea:
- Try to find a calm, shallow, non-rocky spot
- Before you venture in, watch the water long enough to understand how it’s behaving that day
- Don’t take your eyes off of children in the ocean. Above all, try to help kids understand that the ocean is different from a swimming pool and can change at any time
Developing sun sense
Excessive sun exposure is among the most common beach-related harms and absolutely the most preventable. To protect yourself and your family both from sunburn and overheating, use sunscreen and/or protective clothing, try to find or create shade, and drink plenty of water. If it’s going to be mercilessly hot, consider not going. It’s that simple.
When is sunburn of overheating serious?
The average sunburn or heat exhaustion can be relieved simply by getting to someplace cooler, applying cool water to the skin and sipping — not gulping — water. But if there are severe symptoms such as nausea, confusion or a body temperature above 103 degrees, an emergency response is in order. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a guide to warning signs and recommended actions in the event of heat-related illness.
Animals to be aware of at the beach
While nasty run-ins with sea life aren’t as perfectly preventable as sunburn or water injuries, there are precautions, the most obvious of which is to keep an eye peeled. Many stings result from bumbling onto or into creatures that are obscured by sand or vegetation.
It should go without saying that we don’t invade a sea creature’s space by getting too close or acting aggressively. Snorkeling is for strictly for observing — not tailgating and definitely not touching.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Ocean Service has an informative, if sobering guide to the top five coastal critters to avoid: jellyfish, sea urchins, lionfish, stingrays and sharks.
Jellyfish stings: Rinse with seawater, and don’t pee on it
Should things go wrong and you or someone you’re with suffers a jellyfish sting, you can minimize the damage by understanding what’s happening. The pain is caused by thousands of stinging cells, called nematocysts, on the jellyfish tentacles. They essentially fire tiny, venom-filled darts into the skin that cause pain and itching. The presence of those darts means you don’t want to rub the affected area and you don’t want to rinse it with fresh water; either action can trigger more of the nematocysts to fire.
Rinsing with seawater or vinegar can help. You also can pick nematocysts off of the skin carefully with tweezers or a gloved hand. Once that’s done, a rinse with hot water denatures the toxin.
Forget the old advice about peeing on a jellyfish sting; it doesn’t do anything, good or bad. And it’s pretty gross.
Bottom line: risk vs. reward
Just about any outdoor activity involves some risk of injury, but we do things like ride bikes and go to the beach because they’re fun and rewarding. Balancing the reward against the risk helps us find the sweet spot where we’re having fun and staying safe.