The essentials of beach safety

June 22, 2021 in Travel Health  •  By Miles Varn, MD

There hasn’t been a summer in recent memory when people have been more excited to go on vacation. Stay at home orders and other pandemic restrictions have left people longing to relax and recharge. If you and your family are planning a beach vacation this summer, these tips can help you stay safer and healthier.

The top tip—always swim near a lifeguard if one is available. The United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) notes that the risk of drowning at an unguarded beach is five times greater, while the likelihood of drowning at a beach protected by a USLA-affiliated lifeguard is just 1 in 18 million.

Watch out for rip currents

Rip currents are the cause of 80% of ocean rescues and more than 100 deaths each year. A rip current is a powerful, channeled current of water that flows away from the shore past the breakers. They can occur at any beach with breaking waves, including the Great Lakes, and travel at a rate of one to two feet per second. Rip currents most often form near breaks in sand bars or near jetties and piers.

They’re also often difficult to detect and the water may seem calm. Some characteristics of rip currents to watch out for include:

  • A channel of choppy water
  • An area of water that’s a different color than the surrounding surf
  • A line of foam or seaweed moving quickly out to sea
  • A break in the pattern of waves approaching the shore

If you’re caught it a rip current, don’t fight it by trying to swim directly back toward shore. Swim parallel to the shore until you move out of the rip current, then swim to shore. If you’re unable to swim out of the current, float or tread water until you move out of the current or face the shore and signal for help.

Steer clear of jellyfish

While most jellyfish stings cause only minor swelling, pain, and itching, it’s still smart to stay out of the water when these marine invertebrates float in on the tide. Jellyfish stings can cause a wide range of reactions, from skin rashes to cardiovascular and respiratory collapse. Children, the elderly, and people with compromised immune systems are more likely to have a moderate to severe reaction to jellyfish stings.

To treat a mild to moderate sting, physicians recommend rinsing it with salt water and avoiding fresh water which activates the stinging parts of the tentacles that may be left on the skin. Diphenhydramine can help minimize itching and over-the-counter pain medicines can lessen discomfort.

Protect your head and neck

Hundreds of head and neck injuries occur at beaches every summer. The majority occur when people run into the water and dive into a wave, are knocked over by a large wave, and as a result of body surfing and boogie boarding.

The safest way to enter the ocean is by walking in. This gives you the chance to gauge the depth, strength of currents, and force of the waves you’ll be dealing with. If you are knocked down by a wave, crouch into a ball with your head tucked and roll with the wave. On a boogie board or when body surfing, keep your arms straight out in front of you to protect your neck if you’re thrown hard against the ocean floor or the shore.

It’s also important to know the signs of a neck or spinal cord injury. Someone who has this type of injury should only be moved by an EMT or physician. Signs can include:

  • Bruises and scrapes on the face
  • Neck or back pain or tenderness
  • Inability to move
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Weakness in the arms and/or legs
  • Numbness or tingling in the arms and/or legs

 Taking common sense precautions can help you protect yourself and your family while you enjoy time at the beach.