You’re looking forward to flopping on the beach and soaking up the sun - the last thing you want to hear is that you’re heading for a potential danger-zone. But because you could be exposed to dangerous UV radiation, contaminated water and even venomous jelly-fish, here’s all you need to know to stay healthy
At least 40,000 new cases of skin cancer are reported each year in Britain and the most serious form, malignant melanoma, claims the lives of over 1500 people. This makes sunscreen a must for any beach bum. ‘We always recommend that people apply Factor 15+ sunscreen as a matter of course but, more importantly, that they also stay out of the midday sun, make the most of shady areas and wear loose, protective clothing,’ says Kate Law, the Cancer Research Campaign’s Head of Clinical Programmes. You should wear a sunhat too, whether or not you’re thinning on top. The Health Education Authority recommends a wide-brimmed or legionnaire’s hat.
Sunglasses aren’t an optional extra either. ‘Ultra-violet light is very damaging to the back of the eye, causing premature ageing and affecting vision,’ warns Simon Browning of the College of Optometrists. Your best bet is to buy sunglasses which comply with BS 2724. These also have a ‘shade number’ that relates to the amount of UV allowed through - the higher the number, the better the protection. Aim for a shade number of 2.5 or 3.1.
Avoid bargain basement sunglasses that don’t conform to the British Standard. ‘The pupil opens wider when you’re wearing sunglasses so you need a lens that filters out the UV,’ says Browning. ‘Cheaper lenses actually allow in more UV light than would happen normally and can therefore do more damage than none at all.’
If you start sprouting vast numbers of tiny blisters set in red, mildly inflamed skin then you’ve probably got this irritating but non-serious rash. Your best bet is to take cool showers, gently dab-dry the skin, apply calamine lotion and wear loose-fitting clothes.
Just sitting in the sun will make you sweat and if you exercise you’ll lose even more water (perhaps up to 1-2 litres a hour). Unless you want to feel hot and tired, or even develop a headache, drink loads of water. Aim to produce frequent, high volumes of light coloured urine.
Stings & Bites
Sharks attack 100 people each year, mainly between latitudes 30 degrees North and 30 degrees South, but you’re more likely to be attacked by much smaller venomous fish such as stingrays (around North America), weeverfish (the North Sea, Mediterranean and north coast of Africa) or scorpionfish (Indian and Pacific oceans). The best first aid is to immerse the stung area in hot water and get straight to a doctor for an anaesthetic and, if necessary, a shot of antivenom.
‘A few jellyfish can sting very heavily and even cause death,’ says Dr Paul Cornelius, research zoologist at the Natural History Museum, London. ‘But most stings are mild and feel like an intense burning sensation, rather worse than a nettle-sting.’ If you’re stung, deactivate any remaining sting capsules attached to your skin with household vinegar and, if you develop a severe reaction, find a doctor.
Sea urchins and starfish are another hazard for swimmers - they can leave poisonous spines imbedded in your feet. The best treatment is to apply two per cent salicylic acid ointment to soften the skin and then methodically remove all the spines from the wound.
Wasps are the most common insect pest on beaches. Deter them with an insect repellent and, if you’re stung, remove the sting by scraping it away from the skin with a fingernail or credit card. Apply a sting relief cream or spray and take painkillers if necessary.
You’re at risk of tetanus if you cut yourself on something rusty on the beach so make sure you’ve been immunised with a ten-yearly booster,’ says Dr Jane Zuckerman, Head of the Academic Unit of Travel at the Royal Free Hospital School of Medicine, London. ‘If you have a more serious accident while playing watersports in S.E. Asia or the Indian subcontinent you might end up being exposed to hepatitis from unsterilised instruments or unscreened blood while being treated in a local hospital. I’d advise you to be vaccinated for hepatitis B before you go.’
Where sewage isn’t treated to the highest level, harmful bacteria and viruses aren’t killed and can survive in the water or beach sediments for up to 100 days. The main problem is diarrhoea but you’re also at risk of skin rashes and ear, nose and throat infections. Your best bet is to find safe beaches; in Europe, these are designated through the Blue Flag scheme. If you should get diarrhoea, take an over-the counter drug like Imodium and try an oral rehydration treatment.
The pollution of sea water with fertilisers and sewage has caused sudden increases in the growth of algae which can sometimes be toxic and cause skin irritation, gastro-enteritis, nausea, muscle cramps or much worse. Your best bet is to avoid beaches with red algae floating in the tide. If you know you’re in an area with algal blooms, avoid eating the local shellfish at all costs - they can become highly toxic and leave you with serious problems, including diarrhoea, vomiting and even paralysis.
Travellers’ Health: How to stay healthy abroad by Dr Richard Dawood (Oxford, £8.99) is the definitive guide, although definitely not recommended for hypochondriacs.
The Department of Health produces a free guide, Health Advice for Travellers. Phone 0800 555 777 for a free copy.
Copyright: Peter Baker 1999.