Avoiding Beach Dangers

I had a mom come in the other day and ask me a really important question. “Why do babies eat sand?“ I sat there for a moment and finally had to admit that I didn’t know. I guess it will be one of those mysteries of the universe that might never be answered.

But, she did have some beach questions I could answer, and we talked about some of the serious hazards at the beach. Besides the obvious sunscreen, shade for babies, keeping hydrated, etc., the most serious topics that came up were undertow and jellyfish. Today, we will talk about these topics and more as we explore, (“Jaws” theme music playing) BEACH EMERGENCIES!

The most beautiful natural treasure we have here in Baldwin County is our beaches. But with them come some dangers in the form of wildlife and the surf. First of all, it is really important to understand the flag system. Green is good! Yellow means some moderate surf and currents, so take precaution. Red and double red means absolutely no swimming. Finally purple means dangerous wildlife present (ex. sharks, jellyfish, etc.) There are also a few areas that you cannot swim and that includes the pass between Little Lagoon and the gulf on West Beach.

The undertow in the Gulf of Mexico is very strong and unfortunately is responsible for multiple fatalities per year. The undertow is worse in rough weather, and even the strongest swimmer is no match for it. Be sure to swim at a beach with a lifeguard present and stay away from piers and jetties. If you are caught in an undertow, as much as you want to, don’t panic. The most important step is to swim sideways out of the current and parallel to the beach. Once you feel you are not being pulled, then swim at an angle towards the beach but away from the undertow.  If you are unable to swim out of the current sideways, then relax and let the current take you out until it stops. Then swim back to shore. Be sure to wave your arms and attract attention to other beachers if you are unable to swim back in.

If the undertow wasn’t enough for you, we have to consider the wildlife on the beach as well. Be sure to watch the local news and look for purple flags indicating recent issues with sharks and/or jellyfish. Luckily, shark attacks are rare, and the most common issue is jellyfish. If you or your child are stung by a jellyfish, immediately wash off the area with saltwater, but do not use tap or pool water—it will make the sting worse. Liberally spray down the area with vinegar to neutralize the pain (oftentimes, lifeguards will have these at their chairs, but it’s a good idea to keep some in the beach bag).Then, apply shaving cream to the sting and shave off with either a razor or credit card. This sounds crazy, but it is an efficient way to remove any remaining tentacles from the body without you touching them with your hands. Spray the area again with the vinegar and then use ibuprofen or acetaminophen and some ice to help relieve symptoms.  Most symptoms resolve in 24-48 hours, but if they don’t, seek help from a medical provider.

Ah, the joys of summer. Baseball, swimming, going to the beach, getting stung by jellyfish—it’s all part of a week’s vacation, right? Be good and use sunscreen.

Robert L. Rux, M.D.

Robert L. Rux, M.D. is a Board Certified Pediatrician at Magnolia Springs Pediatrics. Originally from Mobile, he attended medical school at The University of Alabama School of Medicine (UAB) and completed residency at The Children’s Hospital of Alabama (UAB). He is married to Jaime and has three children, Adler, Walker and Mary McAtee.

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