Eight Diseases To Watch Out For At the Beach

Forget sharks: These potentially deadly pathogens and parasites can lurk in sand and sea

Seawater contains hundreds of viruses, revealed with dye in the flask on the right. Most are harmless, but some microbes living under the sea and amid the sand aren't. (Photo: © Karen Kasmauski/Corbis)

Despite its idyllic facade, the beach can be a dangerous place—and swimmer’s ear, sunburn and jellyfish stings may be the least of your worries. Beaches can get pretty dirty, and this pollution can come with some nasty pathogens.

These days a bevy of bacteria, viruses and parasites pop up in the water and in the sand around coasts and freshwater locales alike. Between 2009 and 2010, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) counted 81 disease outbreaks in the United States and Puerto Rico tied to recreational waters. Many were traced to treated water sources such as pools and waterparks, but some occurred in natural settings like rivers and beaches.

Many of the pathogens found at beaches are treatable, especially if caught early. Rinsing off and generally washing your hands after leaving the beach can reduce the chance of infection. So by all means, swim in the lake or ocean and frolic in the sand. Just be wary of these potentially deadly creatures lurking along the shore:

“Flesh Eating” Bacteria

(James Gathany/CDC)

Vibrio vulnificus is a pretty gnarly microbe. Eating raw oysters that harbor V. vulnificus results in nausea, diarrhea and abdominal pain. For swimmers with open wounds, V. vulnificus infections can break down skin and cause ulceration, leading to its movie-monster moniker. Early treatment with antibiotics improves patients’ chances, but severe cases sometimes require amputation.

This summer, a Florida news outlet claimed that a whopping 32 cases of V. vulnificus had popped up in the state, leading many media outlets to report that Florida was staving off an attack of flesh-eating bacteria. The report’s numbers were a bit off. According to the Florida Department of Health, the state has seen 15 cases with 3 confirmed deaths as of August 8.

On average, the US sees 95 cases of V. vulnificus per year, with 85 hospitalizations and 35 deaths, the CDC reports. Roughly half of these occur across the Gulf of Mexico region. Beachgoers should be careful of entering the water with open wounds, and seafood eaters should consider cooking their shellfish. 

About Helen Thompson
Helen Thompson

Helen Thompson writes about science and culture for Smithsonian. She's previously written for NPR, National Geographic News, Nature and others.

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