Coastal Flood Warning

4 summer beach hazards that can seriously harm or kill you

By Ashley Williams, AccuWeather staff writer

Basking in the summer sun is always an enjoyable experience for many beachgoers, but a number of threats can potentially sour a trip to the coast without taking proper precautions.

Certain dangers can seriously harm or even kill a person. Take note of the following threats to keep an eye out for on your next beach adventure.

1. Rip currents

Considered the biggest threat to swimmers, these powerful, channeled water currents flow away from the shore and can swiftly drag unsuspecting swimmers farther out to sea.

“Rip currents are present whenever there are waves pushing sand and water up on the beach,” said Dr. Stephen Leatherman, professor and director of the Laboratory for Coastal Research at Florida International University. “They don’t pull you under, but they do pull you out.”

Sharks - Unsplash image

They typically extend from the shoreline through the surf zone and past the line of breaking waves, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Ocean Service.

About 100 people are killed in rip currents annually, and lifeguards pull about 50,000 people every year out of the water, according to Leatherman.

“There are some people who weren’t killed but were in the water quite a while and face health problems because of the lack of oxygen for a period of time,” he said.

If you’re caught in one, it’s best to swim parallel to the shore and toward land at an angle.

2. Jellyfish, stingrays and sharks

Swimmers should keep an eye out for jellyfish, one of the most common beach dangers. They can unleash a painful, but likely not venomous, sting. Only about 70 of the 2,000 known jellyfish species can seriously injure or potentially kill humans, according to NOAA.

“The worst jellyfish that we deal with in Florida is the Portuguese man o’ war,” Leatherman said. “Most people aren’t going to die, but their stings are really quite painful.”

Swimmers should know that the wet tentacles of a jellyfish washed ashore can still sting.

“If you get stung, vinegar is usually the best treatment to immediately help soothe the wound,” Leatherman advised. Check with a lifeguard on additional forms of first aid, he said.

Keep an eye out for a purple flag on the beach, which means the lifeguard has spotted jellyfish or sharks.

Shark attacks and related deaths in the United States are rare, but they do occasionally occur. Some sharks that might attack humans include great white, tiger and bull sharks, Leatherman said.

The aggressive bull shark can be found just about anywhere, even in freshwater not far from saltwater, he added.

Stingrays pose an additional threat, with a sting far more painful than that of a jellyfish. “They lay down in the sand, and if you step on their backs, they’re going to sting you,” Leatherman said.

He advised shuffling your feet in the sand when entering the water. The noise and vibration will signal to the stingray to move out of the way.

3. Water pollution and bacteria

Sewage pipe along beach - Getty Images

(Photo/lolostock/Getty Images)

Poor water quality is an increasingly common hazard that often results in beach closures.

“Ocean waters can become contaminated by partially or untreated sewage discharged into the ocean from boats, pets, failing septic systems, fertilizers and pesticides [as well as] spills from petroleum products and other hazardous substances,” said security, crisis and risk management expert Jack Plaxe.

“Each year across the U.S., there are thousands of swimming advisories and beach closures because of high levels of disease-causing agents found in the water,” Plaxe said.

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Elevated levels of certain bacteria and other chemicals can seriously sicken swimmers, according to NOAA. Experts advise being aware of all beach closures and advisories before taking a dip at the beach.

4. Shorebreaks

An uncommon, yet potentially deadly, beach hazard is a shorebreak, which occurs when the ocean’s waves break directly on the shore.

Both small and high waves can both be dangerous and unpredictable, according to NOAA, and usually form where there’s a rapid transition from deep to shallow water.

“These waves, which we call plunging breakers, can pick you up and drive you headfirst into the beach, and that can break your neck and kill or paralyze you,” said Leatherman, who added that shorebreaks tend to happen on very steep beaches.

Experts recommend checking with a lifeguard on the wave conditions before going for a swim.

“I encourage people to go and enjoy beaches, but you want to look for the signs of any potential problems,” Leatherman advised. “Check the weather reports, and if the waves are above about 4 feet, then they’re dangerous for most people, even if there are no rip currents.”

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