Beach Emergencies: Undertows and Jellyfish

ESPHealth column June 23

Kids Health Watch is brought to you by our friends and Magnolia Springs Pediatrics

A mom came in the other day and asked me an important question: “Why do babies eat sand?” I sat there for a moment and finally had to admit I didn’t know. I guess it will be one of those mysteries of the universe that may 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 discuss these topics and more as we explore (Jaws theme music playing) BEACH EMERGENCIES!

Our beaches are the most beautiful natural treasure here in Baldwin County. But with them come some dangers in the form of wildlife and the surf. First of all, it is essential to understand the flag system. Green is good! Yellow means some moderate surf and currents, so take precautions. Red and double red means absolutely no swimming. Finally, purple represents dangerous wildlife present (ex., sharks, jellyfish, etc.) There are also a few areas you can never swim, including the pass between Little Lagoon and the gulf on West Beach.

Unfortunately, the undertow in the Gulf of Mexico is powerful and responsible for multiple yearly fatalities. 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 crucial step is to swim sideways out of the current and parallel to the beach. Once you feel you are not being pulled, swim at an angle towards the shore but away from the undertow. If you cannot 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 beaches if you cannot swim back in.

If the undertow wasn’t enough for you, we also have to consider the wildlife on the beach. Watch the local news and look for purple flags indicating recent issues with sharks and/or jellyfish. Luckily, shark attacks are rare. However, jellyfish are common. If you or your child is stung by a jellyfish, immediately wash off the area with saltwater. Tap or pool water will make the sting worse. Next, liberally spray down the area with vinegar to neutralize the pain (often, lifeguards will have this, but it’s a good idea to keep some in the beach bag). Then, apply shaving cream to the sting and remove it with a razor or a credit card. This sounds crazy, but it is an efficient way to remove any remaining tentacles from the body without touching them with your hands. Respray the area with 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? So be good, and use sunscreen!

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).

Eastern Shore Parents
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