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Sharks, jellyfish and sea lice: How to keep your family safe at the beach

by Meghan Holohan and TODAY / / Source: TODAY

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If you've planned a beach vacation for this summer, the last things on your mind are probably jellyfish, sea lice or sharks, but if you want to keep your family safe, there are a few things to know.

jellyfish, beach, ocean
jellyfish, beach, oceanShutterstock

Ocean critters and rip tides are just two causes for concern this summer:

1. Sea lice

Beachgoers heading to the south Atlantic and Caribbean beware: Reports claim that sea lice are floating through the waters around Florida. According to Jennie Janssen, the manager of changing exhibits at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and a jellyfish expert, the beginning of the summer is when sea lice are most prevalent.

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Sea lice are the larvae of the thimble jellyfish, small clear and brown jellyfish about the size of a thimble. Jellyfish travel in packs, making it easy for swimmers to spot and avoid them. But the larvae are tiny, resembling a dot — making them difficult to see. They can get trapped in swim suits, resulting in an itchy rash.

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Local authorities at beaches in Florida use purple flags to alert swimmers about sea lice, but because sea lice float with the tides, one beach might experience an outbreak while another remains unaffected. It’s also hard to know where sea lice strike because state agencies don’t track them.

“Sea lice ... is not a public health threat and is not something the Department of Health tracks,” Mara Gambineri, communication director of the Florida Department of Health wrote, via email. The Florida Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission doesn't track sea lice either.

People who think they’ve encountered sea lice should:

  • Shower
  • Rinse out bathing suit
  • Take an antihistamine
  • Use topical itch relief cream

2. Jellyfish

It’s more likely that people will encounter jellyfish, translucent sea creatures with long tentacles found in oceans around the world. Janssen urges people to avoid them; they float instead of swim so just moving away helps.

If stung, you should:

  • Remove tentacles from the skin
  • Rub saltwater over the affected area to remove microscopic stinging cells (freshwater agitates stinging cells)

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The American Red Cross updated its recommendations for jellyfish stings, according to Dr. Peter G. Wernicki, a member of the organization's scientific advisory council. He urged people to avoid other methods they may have heard of in the past like using vinegar, urine or ice to minimize the pain.

“Heat is the best thing for relieving the pain and discomfort,” Dr. Wernicki advised.

Coastal "rip currents" sign
Coastal "rip currents" signShutterstock

3. Rip currents

About 80 percent of all lifeguard rescues occur because swimmers swim into rip currents, which pulls people away from shore, says Tom Gil, public information officer for the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

“If they are non-swimmers they are going to go under or people will fight that rip current and go under,” Gil said. “It is very easy for panic to set in.”

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In the water, it’s tough to see rip currents and they’re even hard to detect from the beach. They look like murky, debris-filled, foamy water, which might be lighter on the sides and darker in the middle. Often they're near sandbars or jetties.

If caught in a rip current, swimmers should:

  • Stay calm
  • Signal to lifeguards for help
  • Swim parallel with the shore

“If you go parallel to the shore you can get out,” Wernicki explained. “If you try to swim directly back in (to the shore), the current is too strong.” The number one piece of advice? Swim at a beach with lifeguards

“If you swim at a guarded beach, your drowning risk is one in 18 million,” Wernicki said.

Following these common-sense tips can help keep swimmers safe:

  • Swim in groups
  • Don’t drink alcohol
  • Stay hydrated
  • Don’t dive into waves
  • Keep children within arm’s length
  • Wear a Coast Guard approved life jacket if you are a poor swimmer

4. Sharks

The chances of being bitten by a shark are ridiculously low, according to Christopher Lowe, director of the California State University Long Beach Shark Laboratory. Last year, sharks bit 54 people. Normally, sharks avoid swimming close to the shore, but sometimes their patterns change. This year, for example, more sharks are close to West Coast beaches because of El Niño.

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As unlikely as a shark attack is, there are ways to avoid them:

  • Don't swim near seals (or other animals that are shark food)
  • Swim in groups
  • Avoid swimming at dawn and dusk (more fish are in the water at these times and the predators take advantage of this)
woman, legs, beach, ocean
woman, legs, beach, oceanShutterstock

5. Sand Fleas

Sand fleas — which are actually small crabs — live in the sand and love biting ankles, feet and legs. These bites turn into small, red itchy welts.

“It's another irritation, but won't cause major damage,” Gil said.

It doesn’t seem that bug sprays prevent the bites. If people suspect they have sand flea bites, he recommends they clean off the area and treat them as they would bug bites, with an over-the-counter cortisone cream or an oral antihistamine.

Don't let these ocean critters ruin your vacation, keep these tips in mind for a safe and healthy summer vacation.

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