Nothing says “summer” more than soaking up some rays, smelling the salt water in the air and having the sand between your toes. It is estimated that Americans take about two billion trips to the beach each year.
However, a relaxing beach weekend can turn into a nightmare with just one rough wave or one angry sea creature. Other than a sunburn, 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.
Make A 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, follow these tips to ensure a great time.
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 or google it if you’re not sure what the flags mean.
Generally, red flags indicate strong surf and currents. 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.
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.
Swimming skills make a huge 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.
4. Watch for rip currents.
Waves don’t always break evenly along the shore. And when they don’t for example, 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. 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.
5. Be aware of the waves
They’re much more powerful than you think. A recent study 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.
6. 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 drink then steer clear of the surf and hydrate properly.
7. Watch for signs of sun sickness/stroke (and find some shade)
A few hours of baking under the sun can cause some serious 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.
8. Use sunscreen
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. Have 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.
9. Be aware of ocean life.
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.
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 stings of some 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.)
10. 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!
Enjoy the summer!