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Beach Safety Myths: 8 Things to Know About the Sand and Sea

Beach Safety Myths

Summer is just around the corner, and here in Alabama, we’re fortunate to be within easy driving distance of both the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Ocean. This means that many of us will be heading to the beach to soak up the sun, play in the sand, and swim in the sea.

Even if you go to the beach every summer, you might be surprised to learn how much misinformation is still going around about beach safety. To help you have the healthiest summer possible, Sarah Bragg, MD, an internist and pediatrician at the UAB Medicine Leeds satellite clinic, weighs in on beach myths and truths.

1. Swimming After Eating

Some people say 30 minutes or an hour, but there is no exact amount of time you need to wait after eating before going swimming. It is true that more blood is sent to your gastrointestinal (GI) tract to aid in digestion, but that’s where the myth begins.

“There was a concern, mostly by mothers and grandmothers, that this would lead to decreased blood flow to your arms and legs, increasing the chances of fatigue and therefore the chances of drowning,” Dr. Bragg explains. “While more blood is sent to your GI tract after eating, it is not enough to be dangerous. Eating just before swimming can result in stomach cramps similar to eating before other forms of exercise, like running, but this is not dangerous.”

2. Jellyfish Stings and Urine

Wouldn’t it be nice if your own urine had therapeutic benefits? Unfortunately, this is not an effective way to ease the pain of a jellyfish sting. Instead of going through the messy hassle of trying to urinate on the sting, pour vinegar onto it to deactivate the venom, and go to the hospital immediately if you have trouble breathing or swallowing.

3. SPF Numbers and Sun Protection

The higher the number, the more protected you are from the sun, right? Wrong! Not only is this a myth, but Dr. Bragg also says that a higher SPF doesn’t mean it lasts longer, especially since all sunscreens – regardless of the SPF – need to be reapplied every two hours.

“I recommend using a broad-spectrum, waterproof sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and reapplying it every two hours,” Dr. Bragg says. “Most adults need about one ounce of sunscreen to cover their whole body, and the majority of people do not apply enough sunscreen. SPF 30 blocks about 97% of the sun's UVB rays. Higher SPF sunscreens block slightly more, but no sunscreen blocks 100% of the UVB rays.”

4. Ocean Quality and Sickness

Some people avoid the ocean due to fears of “red tide”, or that poor ocean quality will make you sick. Red tide, a type of naturally occurring and microscopic algae, contains toxic chemicals that actually cause the water to appear reddish in color at high concentrations. These tides can be harmful to fish and humans, but they rarely affect the average beachgoer. However, anyone with asthma, emphysema, or other respiratory conditions should monitor red tide conditions and avoid water exposure when concentrations are high.

5. Walking Barefoot and Worms

Walking barefoot in the sand is one of the most iconic feelings of summer. However, Dr. Bragg says it’s always a good idea to walk with shoes on in areas that might be contaminated by human waste, because worms can burrow into your feet even if you don’t have a cut on them.

“There are two species of hookworms in the southeastern United States that can burrow into your feet if you walk in contaminated soil, sand, or dirt,” Dr. Bragg explains. “These infections are uncommon in the last few decades due to improvements in sanitation. The good news is that these infections are treatable. If you develop itchy feet or a migrating rash isolated to your feet, go see your doctor for further evaluation.”

6. Cuts and Salt Water

The idea that salt water can heal cuts is a myth, so don’t go into the ocean with open wounds. Salt water often is filled with bacteria that can actually cause cuts and wounds to become infected. Instead of testing this myth for yourself, gently wash cuts indoors with warm and soapy tap water and bandage them up before heading to the beach.

7. Heat Stroke vs. Overheating

Simply being overheated is known as heat exhaustion and involves becoming very sweaty, tired, and weak while you’re in a hot environment. “With heat exhaustion, the body is able to maintain a normal core body temperature through compensation mechanisms like sweating and flushing of the skin,” Dr. Bragg says.

Heat stroke, on the other hand, takes these symptoms to the next level; it occurs when your body can no longer maintain a normal temperature. With heat stroke, the body’s temperature exceeds 104 degrees Fahrenheit and often is accompanied by a fast heart rate, fast breathing, skin that’s dry and red, confusion, nausea, headaches, lightheadedness, hallucinations, agitation, and even loss of consciousness.

“If someone has symptoms of heat stroke, you should call 911 and start cooling them down immediately,” Dr. Bragg advises. “You can assist in cooling them down by spraying the person with water, blowing cool air on them, or wrapping them loosely in wet towels or sheets.”

8. Best Ways to Stay Hydrated

There’s a common myth that any type of liquid can hydrate you when you’re at the beach, but this is simply not true. Pure water is the best way to hydrate yourself and is considerably healthier than sugary sports drinks. Meanwhile, avoid soda and alcohol at the beach because these beverages have dehydrating effects that cause the body to lose fluid.