Several coastal Florida counties are under a state of emergency due to the red tide, a type of toxic algae that sweeps toward shore and produces neurotoxins not only dangerous for marine life, but humans as well. People near the affected areas are advised to stay away from the ocean air - which can feel similar to pepper spray - and care for those most vulnerable to flare-ups from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other conditions.
According to the Daytona Beach News Journal, red tide occurs somewhere along the Gulf Coast almost annually, but not always in the intensity and scope that it has this year. The algae bloom has only been documented nine times on Florida's Atlantic Coast since 1957.
We consulted Dr. Wesley George, an emergency medicine physician at Florida Hospital Memorial Medical Center in Daytona Beach, to learn more about how to stay healthy if the red tide reaches your local beaches.
Avoid the Irritating Neurotoxins
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission explains that red tides, also called harmful algal blooms, occur when microscopic algae multiply to higher-than-normal concentrations. Most blooms last three to five months and affect hundreds of square miles, but they can continue for as long as 18 months, affecting thousands of square miles. A combination of wind, currents and runoff can move the direction of the blooms toward land and promote rapid growth.
People with severe or chronic respiratory conditions like asthma, bronchitis or chronic lung disease are cautioned to avoid areas with active red tides.
"Just like any other irritant in the air, this algae can cause respiratory problems, especially in those with existing conditions," said Dr. George. As the algae blooms mix with sea spray, their toxins drift inland. Common symptoms include an itchy throat and coughing.
If you start to feel the negative effects of the poor air quality, Dr. George explained that the treatment is typically supportive care.
"If you're asthmatic, for example, you'll probably have to use your inhaler," he said, "but if it gets severe, you can come to the ER and we may need to treat you with steroids. If you're experiencing shortness of breath or severe allergies, definitely come to the ER, but most people's red tide symptoms can be treated at home."
If you come in contact with ocean water or sea foam on the beach, you might experience skin irritation. Dr. George advised that Benadryl and itch creams can help.
Save the Beach Getaway for Another Day
When it comes to reducing your risk of symptoms, the advice from Dr. George is simple: "As much as possible, stay away from the coasts and going to the beach."
As you get farther away from a red tide area, your symptoms should subside.
Pets can also be affected by these toxins, so keep them indoors and away from the beach as much as possible if you're near the coast during a red tide.
Also, be aware that shellfish like clams, oysters, and coquinas that are harvested from areas near or in active red tides should not be eaten.