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Stay Safe At the Beach — 13 Tips for Preventing Injury and Illness

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Few things scream “summer” more than soaking up some rays with the scent of salt water in the air and sand between your toes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, Americans take about two billion trips to the beach each year.

But it’s not all about fun in the sun (sorry). A relaxing beach weekend can turn sour with just one rogue wave or one angry sea creature. While most bad beach days end with little more than a sunburn in need of a good soak in aloe vera gel, serious injuries are more common than we’d like to believe. Here are a few tips to help you keep your end-of-summer beach trips as safe as can be.

Photo: Phil Rogers

Your Action Plan

Before hitting the waves, there are a few things to keep in mind. Even if you're heading to the pool or lake instead of the ocean, listen up — many of the tips below apply to hanging out near any body of water. No matter where you’re headed, we've rounded up 13 tips to help you keep safe at the shore.

1. Watch for warning flags (and know what they mean).

Different beaches (and states) have different colored flags and assigned meanings, so be sure to ask the lifeguard if you’re not sure what the flags signify.

Generally, red flags indicate strong surf and currents (i.e., “Be Careful!”). At some beaches, red means “beach closed” — so be sure to check before entering the water. Yellow flags indicate moderate surf and currents — the water is likely to be rough but not exceedingly dangerous. Exercise caution and stay near the lifeguards. Green flags indicate the ocean is calm or clear (though it's always smart to remain alert). Blue or purple flags often indicate that potentially dangerous marine life (think sharks or jellyfish) are in the area or have been spotted nearby. Use caution. And remember: Not all beaches are suitable for swimming, so know the rules before you set foot on the sand.

2. Check the weather.
Photo: Kim Seng

Remember how electric devices and the bathtub don’t mix? Neither do lightning and large bodies of water. Check the weather report before heading to the beach. Avoid the beach if there’s lightning in the forecast and wait at least 30 minutes after the last thunder boom before heading back out to the sand. The beach will always be there tomorrow!

3. Know how to swim.
Photo: Woodlouse

Swimming skills make a big difference: Giving children aged one to four formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by as much as 88 percent. If you can’t do the doggie paddle (at the very least), don’t go near the water.

Ocean swimming is different from swimming in a calm pool or lake — be prepared to deal with strong surf before running in. If you’re at the beach with a child or adult who can’t swim, make sure everyone has a well-fitting lifejacket handy. If you’re going boating, every passenger should wear a properly-sized lifejacket at all times.

Also keep in mind that the ocean floor is not flat and beaches can change drastically from year to year. When heading into the water, be aware that the ocean floor can drop off unexpectedly, so don’t move out quickly without being prepared to swim in water over your head.

Last, but certainly not least, obey the buddy system while swimming. Keep a friend nearby in case either of you ends up needing help (see section on "rip currents" below). 

4. Pick a swimming spot close to a lifeguard.

Photo: Phil Rogers

Lifeguards are there for a reason — they know and can see things about the beach that most beachgoers don’t. Take note of where they’re stationed on the beach and stay near them when swimming — most drownings occur at unguarded sites. Also be aware that currents will naturally push you down the shore, so make note of where you started (say, by remembering a stable landmark like the lifeguard’s flag or your brightly-colored umbrella on shore) and which way the current is moving. Return to that spot in the water regularly so you’re never far from a lifeguard.

5. Watch for rip currents.

Waves don’t always break evenly along the shore. And when they don’t — i.e., when they break more strongly in some areas than others — it can cause a circulation in the water that produces a rip current (basically a strong channel of water extending from the shore out into the water). Rip currents also tend to form near a shallow point in the water, such as a sandbar, or close to jetties and piers and can happen at any beach with breaking waves (including the Great Lakes!). They’re the number one hazard for beachgoers and can pull even the strongest swimmers out to sea.

If you see a current of choppy, off-colored water extending from the shore, steer clear. If you do get pulled out, stay calm, save your energy (let the current carry you for a while), and keep breathing. Don’t try to swim against the current! Gain your composure and start swimming horizontal to the shore until you’re out of the current. Then turn and swim diagonally towards the shore. If you can’t make it to the shore, wave your arms and make noise so someone can see or hear you and get help.
 
6. Know how to identify swimmers in need.
Photo: glennster

It’s a fact: Drowning is the number one cause of unintentional deaths worldwide (It’s number five in the U.S.), and a person can drown in as little as two inches of water. While we tend to think that swimmers in trouble will be waving their hands and making lots of noise, this may not always be the case. In fact, drowning is normally pretty quiet. Watch out for people whose heads are low in the water (mouth submerged) or tilted back with mouth open, eyes closed or unable to focus, legs vertical in the water, or who are trying to swim but not making progress.

7. Be aware of the waves.

They’re much more powerful than you think. A recent study out of Delaware found that injuries resulting from strong waves can range from simple sprains, broken collarbones, and dislocated shoulders to more serious injuries including blunt organ trauma and spinal injuries (which can lead to paralysis).  Shorebreaks — or waves that break directly on shore (rather than breaking a few yards out and rolling in more slowly) — in particular have the potential to cause serious neck and spinal injuries.

When in the water or near the water line (where the water hits the shore), never put your back to the waves. Also be sure to check in with the lifeguard before hitting the surf to ask about the wave conditions at your beach.

8. Stay sober.

Alcohol doesn’t only affect judgment; it can also dehydrate you, increasing the likelihood of heat-related sicknesses. Among drowning-related injures of people aged 15 years or older, almost 22 percent were alcohol-related. We know it’s tempting to enjoy a few Pina Coladas while baking on the beach, but if you’re going to imbibe steer clear of the surf and hydrate properly.

9. Save your skin.

Photo: Kirrus

Just one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence more than doubles a person’s chance for developing melanoma later in life. Racking up more than five sunburns at any age also doubles the risk for melanoma. Keep the red at bay by slathering on a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher, and make sure you have a source of shade — think hats, umbrellas, tents — readily available (especially during the sun’s peak hours of 10am to 4pm). Remember — eyes can get sunburned, too, so don’t forget some shades.

10. Watch for sun sickness/stroke (and find yourself some shade).

A few hours of baking under the sun can cause some seriously uncool symptoms and may even lead to severe sickness. Heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and sun poisoning can all result from dehydration and extended exposure to high temperatures, so make sure to drink plenty of water (and avoid dehydrating liquids like coffee or alcohol).

Symptoms of heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and sun poisoning include confusion and dizziness, fatigue, headache, muscle cramps or weakness, nausea, excessive sweating or lack of sweating, pale skin, swelling (particularly of the hands or face), rapid heartbeat, and confusion. Sun poisoning can also be indicated by skin redness and blistering, pain and tingling, or fever and chills.

If you (or someone you’re with) display any of these symptoms, get out of the sun and heat (umbrellas are your friend), remove any unnecessary clothing, drink plenty of water, and take a cool bath or shower. If symptoms are on the severe side — swelling, confusion, painful and blistering sunburns — it’s best to seek medical attention.

11. Be aware of ocean life.
Photo: kqedquest

Luckily, shark attacks aren’t that common (the U.S. averages just 19 shark attacks each year, and only one every two years is fatal). Most ocean life by the shore shouldn’t cause too much worry, but it’s always good to be aware.

Barnacles and the shells of mussels and clams (especially razor clams!) can be very sharp, so watch carefully when walking on rocks and move slowly while walking out into the water. Little crabs also have an affinity for pinching, so proceed carefully over small rocks with nooks and crannies.

Jellyfish are another creature to look out for — many varieties have tentacles that can discharge venom-filled stingers into your skin, causing a sting. These can vary greatly in severity: They usually result only in a painful, red, irritated mark, though some types can cause severe and life-threatening injuries (remember that box jellyfish in Seven Pounds?).

Most jellyfish stings can be treated at home: If any tentacles remain stuck to the skin after exiting the water, remove them using a flat object (like a credit card). Do not rub them off with your hands (you don’t want more stings!) or a towel (which can agrivate the sting even more). Rinse the sting with seawater (using fresh water may activate singers that have not yet released venom). Next, deactivate the stingers: Rinsing with vinegar for at least 30 seconds works for some species, while a paste of baking soda and seawater works for sings caused by Portuguese man-of-war and sea nettle jellyfish. Finally, relieve pain by soaking the sting in hot water for at least 20 minutes. (Note: Despite the folklore, urinating on a jellyfish sting may actually cause the stingers to release more venom, rather than providing relief. Keep your pee to yourself, people.)

12. Wear shoes — sand gets hot, too!
Photo: Ben Ellis

We know — feeling the sand between your toes is part of the quintessential beach experience. But when it’s upwards of 100 degrees outside, the squishy sand doesn’t feel so great (and can even cause burns!). Be sure to bring a pair of shoes with you in case the sand gets unbearably hot (They’ll help with those oh-so-necessary trips to the beach hut bathrooms, too).

13. Hydrate and fuel up.

Extended exposure to heat and the relaxing effects of waves can easily lead to disorientation and reduced energy. Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks down to the sand with you, and use them.

And finally, remember: The conditions, rules, and intricacies of each beach vary from place to place. Ultimately, the lifeguards on duty should be your go-tos for any questions. They're there to help! 

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