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Sure, you’ve got your sunscreen to reapply every hour to prevent sunburn (use at least SPF30), but there are few other things you need to pack in your beach bag. Here’s how to treat some of the most common beach-related injuries.
Jellyfish or stingray sting
Folk remedies, such as urinating on a jellyfish sting, don’t work. Here's what does: Scrape off any remaining mucous-like tentacles using a Popsicle stick or credit card so you don’t get the toxin on your fingers, says Al Sacchetti, M.D., spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. Rinse jellyfish stings in seawater, not fresh water -- it can make them hurt more. Stingray injuries must be seen by a doctor immediately, as they can result in a cut or puncture wound that bleeds, becomes swollen and causes systemic reactions such as seizures or elevated heart rate. First call 911, then rinse the wound with salt water and soak it in hot water or use hot compresses (if you have access to hot water) to relieve pain until help arrives.
“Hot, sweaty weather is the perfect environment for rashes to develop,” says Dr. Sacchetti. One of the most common is heat rash -- red itchy bumps that occur when perspiration gets trapped in sweat glands, especially around skin folds. Get out of the sun, apply cool compresses to the rash and dab on 1%-hydrocortisone cream.
Some medications such as antibiotics may trigger a rash when you’re exposed to UV rays, so reapply sunscreen frequently, says Sacchetti. If the rash worsens over the next few days, see your doctor to rule out a fungal or yeast infection, which thrive in warm, humid conditions.
If you get water in your ear during a swim, pull out and down on your ear lobe and tilt your head to that side; the water should run out. But if you experience a sharp pain inside your ear a day or so after swimming, you may have an infection known as swimmer’s ear. It’s caused when water collects inside your ear canal, leaving it vulnerable to bacterial infection (especially if you have a cut or abrasion). “If it feels worse when you pull on your ear lobe, that’s a telltale sign it’s swimmer’s ear,” says Lorrie Metzler, M.D., spokesperson for the American College of Emergency Physicians. See your doctor right away who will prescribe antibiotic or steroid ear drops.
Cuts and scrapes
“Rinse out the wound with fresh water, such as bottled water or melted ice from your cooler,” says Dr. Metzler. Use a clean towel to apply firm pressure to stop the bleeding. Apply an antibiotic ointment (such as polymycin) and a bandage, and see your doctor as soon as possible. “Puncture wounds may not seem serious, but germs and debris can be pushed deep into your foot, increasing infection risk,” says Metzler.
Go to the ER if the cut is deep and doesn’t stop bleeding after five or 10 minutes of firm pressure; if the cut is jagged or gaping open; or if it appears that foreign materials (like sand) are embedded in the wound. You may need a tetanus shot if it's been more than five years since the last one.
Before you even hit the beach, you should be well-hydrated. “Drink enough fluids so that your urine appears light yellow to clear,” says Sacchetti. If you're not peeing every couple of hours or you start to feel nauseated, dizzy or weak, get out of the heat and into a cool environment. Drink cool fluids and sports drinks to replace electrolytes and rehydrate. Pregnant women, kids, older adults and anyone with chronic health problems likes diabetes are at a higher risk for dehydration, so encourage everyone to sip fluids throughout the day, even if they don’t feel thirsty. Call 911 if someone seems disoriented -- it's a sign of heat stroke.
This isn't something you can treat, but it is a big concern when you swim in the ocean. Rip currents occur when waves break near the shoreline. As water rolls back into the sea (it can also occur in the Great Lakes), a narrow stream of water moves rapidly away from the shore, sometimes perpendicular to the shoreline. If you get caught in these currents, try not to panic. Think of it as a treadmill you can’t just turn off and you have to “step” to the side to get out of the pull. Swim across the current, staying parallel to the shoreline until you've cleared it. If you get tired, draw attention by facing the shore, waving your arms and yelling for help. Go to United States Lifesaving Association to learn more.