You’re headed to the ocean for some beach time, and you’re ready for a full day of relaxation.
But keep in mind: all sorts of living things can wreck your day in the sun. Here are ways to protect yourself.
Effects range from annoying stomach trouble to life-threatening infections
You are more likely to be attacked by a microscopic marauder than by anything with teeth or a stinger. Some bacteria, viruses and parasites survive and even thrive in warm, salty environments.
Avoid ‘em:Keep perishable food cool. Don’t swim at the beach if you’re sick or if you have an open wound or a weakened immune system. Don’t swallow seawater, don’t put your hands in your mouth after touching sand, and shower after you leave the beach. You can check water quality reportshere. (Warning: The wonky interface requires a bit of patience.)
All stings hurt; some can be deadly
The oceans contain thousands of types of jellyfish, ranging from one-millimeter specks to giants with tentacles more than 100 feet long. Stings are common.
Avoid ‘em: Keep an eye out for jellyfish in the water, and definitely don’t pick up that colorful, balloonlike thing on the sand — it could be a venomous jellyfish cousin called a Portuguese man-of-war. If you’re stung, rinse with seawater and remove spines with tweezers or the edge of a credit card.Contrary to that “Friends” episode, urinating on a jellyfish sting can make it worse.
Irritating rash is seldom harmful
Sea lice are not insects but baby thimble jellyfish. They ride warm ocean currents to tropical beaches such as in Florida and the Caribbean and get trapped in swimmers’ suits or hair. The friction causes their stinging cells to fire. The result is “seabather’s eruption,” an extremely itchy, acnelike rash.
Avoid ‘em: Don’t swim in a billowy T-shirt, which can easily trap sea lice. After swimming, remove your suit and shower as soon as possible.
Injuries are very painful but rarely fatal
Signs that tell waders to do the “stingray shuffle” are not a ploy to make tourists look silly. These shark relatives often lie in the sand in shallow water along nearly all U.S. coastlines.
Avoid ‘em:Shuffling carefully into the water one foot at a time creates gentle vibrations that alert stingrays to your presence. A sting probably requires a trip to the local emergency room.
Bites are similar to mosquito bites
Sand flies live in sandy areas (including deserts) and feed on their hosts’ blood, leaving painful, itchy welts and sometimes spreading parasites and disease.
Avoid ‘em: If you’re in an infested area, wear insect repellent that contains permethrin, and keep skin covered. If a beach insect bites you, wash the spot as soon as you can, apply an ice pack to reduce pain and swelling, and try not to scratch.
Risks include infection and adverse reaction to venom
These relatives of starfish and sand dollars sometimes live in shallow water on rocky or sandy shorelines.
Avoid ‘em: Watch where you step in shallow water. If you are stung, remove large spines, try to shave small ones off with a razor, and soak your foot in hot water with Epsom salt to help dissolve spines that remain. Depending on your body’s reaction, you may need medical care.
Cuts can take a while to heal
Most corals are made up of thousands of individual polyps. Some have sharp skeletons and tentacles with nematocysts (stinging cells) that immobilize prey. Some stinging corals are not corals at all — venomous fire corals, for instance, are hydrozoa, related to jellyfish and anemones. And some sponges sting as well.
Avoid ‘em: No matter how pretty it is, be careful to avoid coral when swimming. If it scrapes your skin, its soft body tissue often sloughs off into the wound, causing a painful burning sensation. Stinging cells must be removed. Some people are sensitive to coral venom and need medical attention.
Stings are painful and occasionally cause heart and respiratory problems
Catfish are found in waters around the world. Bony, hollow appendages on their dorsal and pectoral fins can inject venom, causing severe pain, infections and occasionally respiratory and cardiac problems. Other fish can sting as well, such as the invasive lionfish.
Avoid ‘em:Unless you are pulling one off a hook, you are very unlikely to get stung by a catfish. If you do, immerse the affected area in hot water to ease the pain.
Shark bites are rare but serious (as if you didn’t know that)
Avoid ‘em: Swim close to shore, during daylight hours, and preferably in groups. Don’t get into the water if you’re bleeding or wearing shiny jewelry, as both scream “prey!” If you see a shark, don’t flail but do leave the water as calmly as you can.
Harmless crustaceans get a bad rep
These pale, clawless crustaceans don’t attack humans, but we included them because people incorrectly use the name “sand flea” to mean sand flies and other biting insects. For instance, the Chigoe flea is often called a sand flea, and it can burrow into your skin and lay eggs. Fortunately, Chigoe fleas are rarely found in North America.
Avoid ’em: No need to avoid the crustaceans, which are often a couple of inches long and makepretty good bait. But if you’re barefoot in an area known to have Chigoe fleas, inspect your feet for tiny black spots. Better yet, wear shoes.