Summer is in full swing at local beaches, but that does not mean beachgoers should be more relaxed about beach safety. In fact, beach goers should prepare themselves for a variety of dangers such as rip currents, the strength of the sun's rays, sea life and water quality, says Glenn Hebel, MD, medical director of Newport Hospital's Emergency Department.
"Spending time at the beach is one of the favorite pastimes of Rhode Islanders," says Hebel. "But understanding the dangers and knowing how best to avoid them will allow you and your family to focus on what is most important at the beach - having fun."
With 384 miles of tidal shoreline, Rhode Island provides a multitude of opportunities to enjoy time at the shore. And while many feel safe swimming in shallow waters, even those can prove deadly if proper precautions are not taken.
"Before you head to the beach, do some research," Hebel says. "Make sure that you are going to a beach with lifeguards on duty and be aware of the hours they are there. And take what they say seriously. You should always follow their instructions or warnings. Swimming at open ocean beaches means you run the risk of getting caught in rip currents, which can drag swimmers away from the shore at fast speeds."
What can swimmers do if caught by a riptide? Remain calm and do not swim against it. Instead, swim parallel to the shore in order to free yourself from the current.
Sun safety is just as important as water safety at the beach. While the air may be cooler at the shoreline, the sun is burning just as strong onto your skin. Hebel recommends wearing sunblock of at least 30 SPF and applying every two hours, as well as after swimming or sweating. He notes that FDA changes mean that sunscreens must now be labeled as water resistant, instead of water proof or sweat proof since those terms were misleading. And remember, infants six months of age and younger should be completely shaded and not in any direct-sunlight environments.
"All of these precautions are especially important since the ozone layer has thinned, causing the sun's rays to be much stronger than they were 10 or 20 years ago," Hebel says. "Every summer we treat many people in our emergency department who are experiencing the pain and itching caused by a severe sunburn."
Other beach safety tips include:
- Avoid drinking - Alcohol and the beach do not mix well. Not only does drinking dehydrate you, which is not healthy while spending time in direct sun, but it also impairs your cognitive and bodily functions. Alcohol reduces your body temperature, and impairs your swimming ability as well as judgment - which can create risks while swimming in the water. Hebel says he and his team treat many people every summer for alcohol-related beach problems. "While most are accidents, they are quite serious," he says.
- Know the water quality - Research the quality of the water where you will be swimming. All beaches are required by law to test the water, and most will post the findings, but keep in mind that these reports are usually released a day after the water has been tested. It is a good idea to avoid swimming at the beach following a heavy rainfall as this often decreases the quality of the water by some measure.
- Be smart while using flotation devices - Always use a leash while on a body board or other piece of aquatic equipment so that you do not lose it, or injure other swimmers. And do not use the flotation device any further out of the shore than you can swim.
- Hydrate yourself - Spending time in direct sunlight for extended periods of time can severely dehydrate the human body. Be sure to replenish your body with plenty of water - bring extra bottles to the beach with you and locate the nearest water fountain if the beach provides one.
- Wear shoes - The sand is traveled on by many people each year, spreading germs and fungi. Wearing shoes such as sandals can help you avoid this. Additionally, shoes can protect the bottom of your feet from burning and blistering while on the sand and from sharp objects. "Every summer we treat people in the ED with lacerations to the bottom of their feet from pieces of broken glass and sharp pieces of shells, some with the pieces lodged in their feet," Hebel says. "Shoes are a necessity at the beach."