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15 Diseases You Can Get While Vacationing At The Beach

There are a lot of diseases you can contract by going to various beaches, typically in developed countries, public swimming areas adhere to strict health guidelines, although this is not a worldwide standard.

Imagine yourself basking in the sun while turquoise waves gently lap at the white sandy shore, sounds idyllic, right?  The perfect beach vacation can be unforgettable, romantic, and relaxing if you take the right precautions to protect yourself against a variety of beach-related illnesses.  Of the following 15 diseases, some are prevalent and others rare, but most can be prevented if you pay attention to your surroundings and inform yourself.  In developed countries, public swimming areas adhere to strict health and safety guidelines to protect the population from most of these illnesses. 

15. Gastroenteritis

Often called a Stomach bug, Gastroenteritis presents with flu-like symptoms and can be caused by several different types of pathogens such as norovirus, rotavirus, E-coli, and salmonella.  People often come into contact with these bacteria while playing in sand and water that contain traces of fecal matter. According to the American Public Health Association (AMHA), the fecal matter comes from sewage run-off and even though most sewage sites are far away from public swimming zones, storms and large waves can displace sewage from one area to another. You can protect yourself from catching a stomach bug at the beach by showering off and washing your hands thoroughly. 

14. Food Poisoning

Food Poisoning describes a range of bacteria that can find their way into our food to make us sick.  Common types of bacteria include Salmonella, E-coli, and ListeriaThe Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), reports that food poisoning spikes during summer months when people pack picnic lunches to take to the beach.  Improperly stored food can spoil quickly in the sun so the CDC recommends you keep your food cool using an insulated cooler, cook meat thoroughly, pack raw foods separately from cooked foods, and clean your hands and produce carefully.

13. Swimmer's Ear

Otitis Externa or Swimmer’s Ear is incredibly common, especially among children and it occurs when contaminated water gets trapped in the outer ear canal. The infection can cause considerable pain if left untreated; symptoms include red, itchy, swollen ears, and pus drainage, consult a doctor for treatment.  The best way to avoid swimmer’s ear is to wear earplugs and a bathing cap while swimming and after swimming dry your ears with a clean towel.  If water gets trapped in your ear you can tilt your head from side to side until the water drains out. In some cases, the water won’t drain out, in that situation you can use a hairdryer on a low setting to dry out the trapped water in your ears.

12. Swimmer's Itch

Swimmer’s Itch is another easily treatable disease you can contract at the beach.  Swimmer’s itch is caused by microscopic parasites that come from snails in fresh and saltwater, so avoiding marshy areas is a good way to protect yourself and shower off after swimming.  Cercarial Dermatitis presents as a skin rash with small red pimples or blisters, and you can experience itching, burning, and tingling.  Swimmer’s Itch normally goes away with over-the-counter anti-itch cream, corticosteroid creams, and the itch can be subdued with a cold compress and Epsom salt baths.  Rarely do people affected by cercarial dermatitis require medical attention.

11. Pink Eye

Pink eye, also referred to as conjunctivitis, is easily caught simply by rubbing your eyes with hands that have come into contact with contaminated surfaces.  When playing in the sand, it is important to wash your hands before touching your eyes.  Do not share eyewear with anyone as viral conjunctivitis is quite contagious. Over the counter eye drops can manage the infection if it is not severe if symptoms don’t improve after 24 hours or become painful, or unmanageable, seek treatment from a doctor.

10. Fungi

Fungi or dermatophytes are found at the beach in the form of ringworm, athletes foot, jock itch.  These types of fungi spread through people, animals, and sand.  There are more severe forms of fungi such as Candida which causes yeast infections, and Aspergillus which can infect the lungs are also found at the beach but usually only affect people with weakened immune systems.

9. Giardia

Giardia or Giardisis is a parasite found in food, soil, and water and comes from fecal matter contamination.  Giardia symptoms include diarrhea, greasy stool that floats, flatulence, nausea, and dehydration. To prevent the contraction of Giardia, wash your hands after playing in the sand and avoid swimming in water that may be contaminated.

8. Hookworm

Hookworms come from infected feces that can be found in sand and soil and can burrow their way under your skin.  Itching and a rash are the primary symptoms but if the infection worsens a person can experience fever, vomiting, diarrhea, and even anemia. Treatment is relatively simple, lasting from 1-3 days but you can avoid becoming a hookworm host by wearing shoes when walking in unknown areas.

7. Harmful Algal Blooms (HAB)

HABs come in a variety of forms, (foam, mats, and scum) and colors and can be found in both fresh and marine water.  HABs are becoming more prevalent due to climate change as the algae thrive in warm conditions.  You can contract Algae related illnesses from swimming in affected water but the toxins can also become airborne through mist and vapor therefore it is important to stay away from contaminated areas.  There are a variety of symptoms and treatments depending on the specific type of Algal bloom but if you think you’ve been exposed you should shower immediately and call the local health authority to report the location.

6. Oil Spill Related Illnesses

Swimming in water containing crude oil or coming into contact with oil washed up on the shore can cause skin irritations like dermatitis.  After an oil spill, affected regions report an increase in respiratory illnesses, neurological disorders, and stress.  These symptoms mostly only appeared in oil workers and those who helped clean up the oil spill but people unrelated to the oil industry have been affected as well. Not much is known about Oil Spill Related Illnesses and their long term consequences but if suspect oil has been spilled in an area, do not enter the water.

5. MRSA

Antibiotic-resistant Methicillin-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus has made its way from the hospital to the beach and has been found in water and sand samples. MRSA has not infected anyone to date, but if someone does become infected it can be very easy to spread to others.  Those most at risk would be children, the elderly, and those with weakened immune systems. Scientists studying this potential risk recommend people shower before and after they go swimming at the beach, and to avoid the beach all together if they have an open wound.

4. Hepatits

Many surfers in San Diego, California have received Hepatitis A vaccines because of fear of improper medical waste disposal and pollution from the Tijuana River, which runs off into the ocean and can be contaminated with Hepatitis.  Hepatitis vaccinations are an effective way to preventing infection.

3. Legionnaires/Pontiac Fever

Legionnaires is contracted through vapor or mist that contains Legionella. Legionella grows in warm freshwater and has become a low risk in freshwater beach areas. Legionnaires is a form of pneumonia so symptoms are similar and can appear in 2-10 days after contact. Pontiac Fever is a mild form of Legionnaires characterized by fever and muscle aches.  Legionnaires can be quite severe for people with compromised immune systems but in a healthy person, while usually requiring a hospital, it is easily treated with antibiotics.

2. Flesh Eating Disease

Vibrio Vulnificus, a species of flesh-eating disease, can occur when you ingest raw or undercooked seafood but can also be contracted when an open wound comes into contact with contaminated salt and brackish water or the juices from raw or undercooked seafood such as oysters.  If you have an open wound, it is best to avoid swimming.  Applying a bandage to an open cut before a seafood dinner or going for a swim will also protect you from vibrio vilnificus.  One species of the flesh-eating disease can be fatal or result in limb amputation in severe cases, therefore if you notice discoloration, swelling, pus, redness and irritation around an open wound you should consult a doctor.

1. Brain Eating Amoeba

Naegleria fowleri or Brain-Eating Amoeba is found in warm freshwater and infiltrates your brain via your nose and destroys brain tissue. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines Naegleria fowleri as a rare disease but it is fatal and reports that out of 145 known infected persons, between 1962-2018, only 4 people in the USA have survived the illness. Symptoms can appear between 1-9 days after contact and initially present as a severe headache, fever, nausea and eventually confusion, hallucinations, and seizures.   Limiting the chance of getting water up your nose by wearing a nose plug is the best way to prevent ameba from entering your brain.  Early diagnosis and treatment is the key to survival but the treatment is still experimental.

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