Red tide: Here’s what to do if it ir­ri­tates you

Palm Beach Daily News - - TODAY - By SONJA ISGER

Red tide can prove fa­tal to ma­rine life, but when peo­ple come in con­tact with tox­ins ginned up by this coastal in­ter­loper, their re­ac­tions are typ­i­cally tem­po­rary, al­beit re­ally un­com­fort­able.

Swim in it, eat shell­fish that have dwelled in it — that could make you itchy, nau­seous and on rare oc­ca­sions, sick. But as beach­go­ers in re­cent days can at­test, most peo­ple feel its sting be­fore they step in the wa­ter.

You won’t smell it. Can’t taste it. But walk through a breeze car­ry­ing its in­vis­i­ble byprod­ucts and your eyes may wa­ter, your throat may get scratchy. Sneez­ing, wheez­ing and cough­ing may fol­low. Even if you’re a mile away from shore.

“It’s sort of like tear gas,” says Larry Brand, a ma­rine bi­ol­ogy and ecol­ogy pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Mi­ami.

For some, the symp­toms can fade in the time it takes to walk to a clear patch of air. For oth­ers, it sticks around a bit longer, Brand said.

The best and most com­mon ad­vice: If you’re ex­pe­ri­enc­ing these symp­toms walk away; leave. Live in the path of the nox­ious breeze? Close your win­dows and doors and crank the air con­di­tion­ing.

Skin itch­ing af­ter a swim? Rinse off.

Feel­ing ill a day or so later, see a doc­tor.

“Use com­mon sense, and know your own health is­sues,” Palm Beach County Health Depart­ment spokesman Tim O’Con­nor said. “Every­body is dif­fer­ent.”

So far, Palm Beach County’s emer­gency rooms are not re­port­ing any sig­nif­i­cant uptick in com­plaints tied to the tide that ar­rived on Flor­ida’s east coast last week­end, O’Con­nor re­ports.

That said, the depart­ment worked with the county’s park of­fi­cials last week to post signs at area beaches alert­ing vis­i­tors to the pres­ence of red tide and ad­vis­ing them to steer clear if they ex­pe­ri­ence symp­toms, O’Con­nor said.

Red tide can cause more se­vere prob­lems in peo­ple who have such res­pi­ra­tory con­di­tions as asthma or em­phy­sema. Their sys­tems are more sen­si­tive to any air­borne ir­ri­tants, he said.

Named for the red­dish-brown tinge this par­tic­u­lar species of al­gae gives the wa­ter, red tide nat­u­rally oc­curs in the Gulf of Mex­ico and has been spot­ted on Flor­ida’s east coast.

When it does ven­ture into these wa­ters, red tide doesn’t usu­ally stay in any sig­nif­i­cant con­cen­tra­tion.

“On this coast, you have a very strong Gulf Stream, the wa­ters tend to get swept away and bet­ter mixed. The only con­cern would be if it gets into the es­tu­ar­ies like Bis­cayne Bay or the Lake Worth la­goon and gets bot­tled up,” Brand said. “But that’s un­likely.”

Wher­ever it goes, the scourge known to sci­en­tists as Kare­nia bre­vis brews a handy neu­ro­toxic de­fense — breve­toxin.

Its vic­tims are most com­monly sea crea­tures. But peo­ple can be ex­posed to it by breath­ing it, touch­ing it or in­gest­ing it.

The U.S. Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol and Preven­tion says Amer­i­cans are most com­monly sick­ened by breve­toxin by eat­ing con­tam­i­nated shell­fish. A meal of the stuff can re­sult in ab­dom­i­nal pain, vom­it­ing and di­ar­rhea.

It can also pro­duce symp­toms such as the re­ver­sal of hot and cold sen­sa­tions or ver­tigo. But even this isn’t com­mon be­cause com­mer­cial shell­fish beds are rou­tinely screened for it. And while such food poi­son­ing can send some­one to the hos­pi­tal, na­tional health au­thor­i­ties re­port no fa­tal­i­ties.

But with red tide’s ar­rival off Palm Beach County shores, the more im­me­di­ate con­cern has been fo­cused on the nox­ious air that comes with it.

Wave ac­tion can break up the al­gae and re­lease the breve­toxin stored within. A wind whip­ping over the wa­ter can then pick it up and carry it in tiny droplets at least a mile in­land, Brand said.

“How much fur­ther has never been tested, but I’ve got­ten emails from peo­ple liv­ing 5 miles in­land and com­plain­ing of symp­toms,” Brand said.

Their eyes wa­ter and red­den, burn or itch. They com­plain of sore, ir­ri­tated, scratchy throats.

For some, the symp­toms can fade in the time it takes to walk to a clear patch of air. For oth­ers, it sticks around a bit longer, Brand said.

Eric Me­d­ina, an oph­thal­mol­o­gist with Mit­tle­man Eye in West Palm Beach, said one of his pa­tients came in last week with symp­toms he be­lieves were trig­gered days ear­lier by red tide ex­po­sure: red and itchy eyes.

“He was at the beach all week­end, and they weren’t tak­ing any pre­cau­tions so we came to the con­clu­sion that it might be re­lated,” Me­d­ina said. “Some peo­ple may de­velop a hy­per-sen­si­tiv­ity or could get a buildup of neu­ro­toxin in their eyes.”

But for most peo­ple, eye ir­ri­ta­tion should sub­side on its own, he said.

Me­d­ina said the best ad­vice is to avoid the beach, but if ex­po­sure is un­avoid­able, rins­ing eyes with preser­va­tive-free ar­ti­fi­cial tears can flush out neu­ro­tox­ins. Reg­u­lar tap wa­ter is too abra­sive and could cause pro­longed ir­ri­ta­tion, he said.

If red tide lingers, as it has on Flor­ida’s south­west coast for nearly a year, the toll can pile up, driv­ing more folks to emer­gency rooms and leav­ing those who live just a breeze away from the beach suf­fer­ing from scratchy throats, burn­ing eyes or even just a gen­eral malaise for ex­tended pe­ri­ods of time, ac­cord­ing to a five-year study out of the Univer­sity of Mi­ami’s Cen­ter for Health Man­age­ment.

The study, which looked at 10 years of data and in­cluded ar­eas from Tampa to Naples, found in­pa­tient and emer­gency room costs re­lated to red tide were av­er­ag­ing $700,000 an­nu­ally.

“These is­sues get worse in the win­ter, and that’s when the snow­birds come down and dur­ing the tourist sea­son,” cen­ter di­rec­tor Steven Ull­mann said. “It seemed to re­ally im­pact peo­ple 55 and older.”

Red tide is typ­i­cally a win­ter con­cern on the south­west coast, last­ing from the fall through March.

Part of the study also looked at what Ull­mann called “pre­sen­teeism” — ba­si­cally feel­ing bad but com­ing to work any­way. For life­guards, pre­sen­teeism can put peo­ple’s lives in dan­ger.

“Their abil­ity to fo­cus on their jobs is very sig­nif­i­cant and that can be im­pacted by red tide,” Ull­mann said. “Red tide is some­thing crit­i­cal, not just from an eco­nomic and cost per­spec­tive, but also just in terms of qual­ity of life.”

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