With most things in life, you have to take the rough with the smooth and similarly with surfing, along with sunsets, dolphins and stoke, there are illnesses and injuries to be aware of
The ocean is big and there’s a lot of stuff going on within the giant, fun, swimming pool. As visitors within it, there are a few things that can pose a health risk to humans … nothing too scary, just things to be aware of when you’re in the sea.
Surfing is fun but a little preparation and knowledge will go along way in making sure it stays fun and any potential health problems are avoided. Here are a few common water related ailments, how to treat them and most importantly, how to avoid them….
Also known as surfers eye, this is a growth on the eye caused by lengthy exposure to UV light, wind and the bacteria found in seawater. Although not a serious condition it can cause irritating symptoms such as redness, blurred vision, burning and itching. Sunglasses provide the best protection and rinsing your eyes with water post surf. Mild cases can be treated with steroid eye drops, severe cases require surgery.
Roxy’s Monyca Eleogram recently had an operation for her pterygium growth and has warned all to take care of your eyes!
One surf session without the correct protection on can result in a week of sitting in the shade covered in aloe-vera. Not to mention the long-term consequences of UVA and UVB sun damage. Remember there’s no such thing as a healthy tan and skin cancer kills more surfers than drowning.
To protect your skin whilst in the waves, surf early and late to avoid the hottest part of the day (11am-3pm), wear a good quality waterproof suncream, consider sunblock / zinc cream (even on cloudy days) and reapply the cream after a session to replenish any that was washed off in the water. Areas that get blasted on a sunny day are your face, neck, arms, lower back, legs, feet, ears and hands.
Suntroke – or heatstroke as it’s also known, is a serious condition you can face when dealing with extreme or prolonged heat. It happens when your body struggles to regulate its temperature at normal levels, leaving your major organs at risk; in extreme cases if can prove fatal. Sunstroke is defined by a body temperature in excess of 40°C (104°F) so reducing your core temperature is critical in this situation. This can be done by removing clothing, immersing yourself in cold water, using ice packs, drinking lots of water and finding shade and ventilation. If after a surf you are feeling weak then replenish lost fluids straight away. Failure to do this can result in heat exhaustion, which in turn can result in heatstroke.
A fish with a venomous dorsal fin, the weever fish can be encountered at beach breaks throughout Europe during the summer months. If trodden on, the weever fish can inflict quite a painful sting – it feels like you’ve trodden on a sharp nail. Treatment involves soaking the foot in a bucket of non-scalding hot water for ten minutes to deactivate the venom. Avoid getting stung by wearing booties or shuffle your feet through the sand as you walk as this disturbance will scare any nearby fish away. Photo courtesy RNLI Lifeguards – SE Cornwall
These spiky seabed nuisances are rarely poisonous but they are really painful to step on. Booties or reef shoes will protect your feet if there’s an abundance of them. If you step on one, first immerse the foot in hot water to relieve the pain and soften the skin, then remove as many spines as you can using tweezers. Apply antiseptic and keep the wound clean… any embedded spines should dissolve after three weeks but see a doctor if there’s pus or any persistent pain.
Many types of jellyfish can inflict painful stings and one or two species are particularly hazardous such as the box jellyfish whose agonising stings can sometimes prove to be fatal.
It’s hard to avoid a sting if there is an unseen jelly in the water but avoid going in the water when a large bloom/swarm is coming through. If a sting does occur, for most types of jellyfish sting the recommended treatment is to remove any tentacles by rinsing them off with seawater or carefully pick them off with your fingers and then dousing the area with vinegar which will disable the stinging cells. Use a credit card or blunt knife to scrape off any remaining nematocysts but seek medical help if there are any additional symptoms such as vomiting, difficulty breathing, dizziness or lethargy.
In the case of blue bottles/Portuguese man-of-war sings, bathe in non-scolding hot water for ten minutes rather than vinegar. If a box jellyfish is suspected, seek medical help.
Hypothermia occurs when the body is exposed to cold water (or air) for a prolonged period and when the core temperature falls bellow 35°C (95°F). If you’re going somewhere cold, make sure you have a really good wetsuit, hood, gloves and boots and can get changed and warmed up as quickly as possible once out the water.
The symptoms of hypothermia include uncontrollable shivering, cold and pale skin, slurred speech, trouble coordinating basic functions and acting irrationally. If someone is suffering from hypothermia, the trick is to gently warm them and allow their core temperature to creep back up at a safe level. Get them out of the elements, leave their wetsuit on but quickly dry the outside, then wrap them up and make sure extremities (such as the head) are covered and share your own body warmth. Offer a high-carbohydrate drink (hot or cold) but not alcohol. Photo courtesy Sharpy.
Swallowing water contaminated with bacteria and viruses (such as E.coli, salmonella and rotavirus) can cause stomach flu/gastroenteritis. To limit your chances or picking up any nasties in the water, do not surf near local sewage outlets, avoid surfing near river mouths (especially after a heavy rainfall) and stay clear of water that looks unusually brown. Symptoms include diarrhoea, vomiting, headaches and cramping and can be treated with bed rest and lots of fluids. Although unpleasant, this is one you just have to ride out, unless dehydration becomes severe in which case seek medical advice. Photo courtesy SAS.
Surf rashes can occur when the skin become softened and weakened by exposure to salt water and water parasites and also from the friction between your skin and the surfboard, wax or sometimes the wetsuit/vest/swimwear material. Avoid by investing in a good quality rash vest or wetsuit and post surf, rinse well with fresh water.
Irritation from cold wind and water exposure can cause the bone surrounding the ear canal to develop lumps of new bony growth which constrict the ear canal. Water and debris can then become trapped behind the growth resulting in painful ear infections. Difficulty clearing water from ears after surfing and recurrent ear infections is a sign that you may have Surfer’s Ear but it can be prevented by wearing surf/ear plugs. Unfortunately surgery is the only way to rid of the annoying new bone. Photo courtesy Surf Ears.
When surfing a shallow reef, contact with the reef is likely which can result in cuts and breakage of the skin. If contact occurs, wash the wound with freshwater and apply iodine or white vinegar to neutralise any live coral toxins. Look out for infections and keep the wound well protected until it has fully healed.
Larger wounds may require adhesive strips but a more extreme cut will need to be dealt with by a medical professional. Reef cuts on your feet can be avoided by wearing booties but to avoid full body slams, surf within your means and do not tackle a reef break if you are not ready.
Photo: Annika Katia
Sand, sunlight, seawater and wind can cause the eye to become inflamed and irritated and bacteria and viruses within seawater can then infect the inflamed area causing conjunctivitis.
Symptoms include redness in the white of the eye or inner eyelids, yellow discharge, a itchy or burning feeling in the eye and blurred vision. Easily treated with eye drops, but if left untreated it can progress and cause scarring and even loss of sight.
These are just a few of the water related health issues surfers should be aware of but Hepatitis A, MRSA and Legionnaire’s disease are also worth reading up on if heading abroad. Ailments and sickness aside, if visiting a new surf spot, remember to check out other surfing hazards such as strong winds, rocks, rips, saltwater crocodiles and sharks.
For more travel advice, check out Surf Travel The Complete Guide, the surf travellers bible featuring the best surf designations around the world and packed with tips from pro surfers, practical advice and advice for travelling safely. Available here.