Every year, millions of Americans flock to the beach as a fun, low-cost way to escape the summer heat for a few hours or a long weekend. Though the seaside undeniably offers its share of escapist pleasures, it also plays host to some unique dangers of its own. When you hit the beach this summer, it's important to stay alert for hazards in the water and on land. Here are some lurking dangers that can turn your favorite summer oasis into an emergency situation, along with tips that can help keep you safe:
Before stripping down to your swimsuit and making a mad dash into the waves, pause and take some basic precautions. "First of all, know how to swim," says Mark Tew, chief of Marine and Coastal Weather Services for the National Weather Service. "Never swim alone. And for maximum safety, only swim where there's a lifeguard and obey all instructions."
Tew also recommends making sure everyone is aware of dangers like rip currents, the narrow channeled currents of water that flow away from the shore. Generally ranging in width from 10 to 20 feet, these swift-moving streams of water can carry swimmers away from the shoreline. According to the United States Lifesaving Association, rip currents cause about 100 fatalities in the U.S. every year, and lifeguards rescue more than 50,000 swimmers caught in currents annually. "There's a lot of people who don't seem to understand the danger of rip currents," Tew says. "It's best if people prepare in advance."
Before going into the water, talk to a lifeguard or look around for informational signs, Tew says. Many beaches use flags to let swimmers know about rip current dangers.
If you do find yourself caught in a rip current, stay calm and don't fight it, Tew advises. Instead, escape by swimming in a direction parallel to the shoreline. If you can't swim out, Tew suggests floating or treading water until the current weakens, and then make your way back to shore. And be sure to try to get the attention of the on-duty lifeguard. "If there's any time you feel you'll be unable to reach the shore, try to draw attention to yourself: Face the shore, call out or wave for help," Tew says.
Shocks and Stings
Some jellyfish hanging around beaches - including common sea nettles and more dangerous varieties like the Portuguese Man-of-War in the south - can cause discomfort or even pose a serious threat to beachgoers. "When you're in the water and jellyfish are around, the best thing to do is to avoid them," says Butch Arbin, captain of the Ocean City, Maryland Beach Patrol.
If you're stung, return to shore, Arbin says. Remove anything that may be stuck to the sting, like tentacles, and then dry the area. Be sure to blot skin dry, rather than rubbing it. And instead of relying on home cures (some people suggest everything from vinegar to urine as a quick fix), visit the lifeguard stand, where the patrol should have products to help clean and numb the sting.
If you have a bee or seafood allergy, be sure to seek help immediately, Arbin says. In some rare cases, people with allergies can have more severe reactions, including swelling in the throat or difficulty breathing.
Even on cloudy days, beachgoers are still at high risk for sunburn, Arbin says. And being outside along the shore comes with a unique risk: White sand and water can reflect sunlight back at you, and it can also sneak in under your umbrella or hat.
Protect yourself from immediate sun damage and the long-term threat of skin cancer by always wearing sunscreen, making sure to reapply regularly after swimming or engaging in physical activity. "Some sunscreens say 'waterproof' and all that, but the truth is, if you're in the water and you're perspiring, some of the sunscreen is washing off," Arbin says.
For best results, apply sunscreen just after getting out of the shower when your pores are open, which allows more sunscreen to be absorbed. And be sure to lather sunscreen onto the places you wouldn't expect to burn, such as the tops of your feet and below tan lines, Arbin says.
Nothing can sour a beach trip quite like a case of heat exhaustion. Symptoms include feelings of weakness, dizziness and nausea, brought on when the body loses fluids and starts to overheat. If heat exhaustion goes untreated it can turn into heatstroke, which occurs when the body's sweat mechanisms start to shut down, leading to a rise in internal temperature and organ failure.
If you begin to experience any of the symptoms of heat exhaustion, get out of the heat and sun immediately, and start rehydrating with cold water, Arbin says. Avoid sports drinks and soda, which contain sugars and chemicals that need to be digested. Instead, drink plain water, which is the liquid most quickly absorbed into the body, Arbin says.
You can help prevent heat exhaustion by avoiding alcohol (which causes your body to eliminate water more quickly) and by staying hydrated throughout the day. "Thirst is not a good indication of a need to rehydrate," Arbin says. "Because when you feel thirsty, that's an indication that you're already dehydrated. So when people say, 'Wow, I'm thirsty, I better get a drink,' really you're starting to feel the signs of dehydration. So for parents, you need to push the water, you need to push the liquids."
[Read: How to Tan Safely.]
Sand dunes can shift and collapse unexpectedly, leading to burials, bruises and broken limbs. Be careful when exploring sand dunes and don't overestimate their stability, says Travis Heggie, a professor at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio.
Elsewhere on the shore, children - who love to dig holes through beach sand - can find themselves trapped or crushed by tunnel collapse or by stumbling into hidden sand pits or old holes. When digging, keep any hole knee-deep to the smallest person in your group, Arbin says.
And while it's important to let kids be kids, Heggie recommends keeping a close eye on loved ones whenever you visit a beach. Watch out for pre-existing sand holes and take stock of your surroundings. "We don't want to scare everybody," Heggie adds. "Face it, the beach can be a wonderful experience, but dang it, you better have your sunscreen on, and you better be wary of the environment you're playing in."