Taking the sting out of seaside injuries

Published in Medicinewise Living

Date published: About this date

Heading to the beach is a national pastime for many Australians. But your day out or seaside holiday could turn nasty if you end up lobster red from sunburn or on the wrong side of a sea urchin.

Here are some tips for preventing common beach injuries, what to do if you are unlucky, and when to seek medical help.

Too much sun isn’t fun

Knowing how to treat and prevent common beachside injuries will ensure you have fun in the sun. (Alliance / Shutterstock.com)

Getting a little bit of sun is good for your health, but too much sun results in both visible and invisible damage caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays. There are two types of UV rays — UVB and UVA.

According to Associate Professor Jane Hanrahan, a sunscreen expert from the University of Sydney, it’s important to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF) that protects your skin from both types of UV radiation.

"UVB is the cause of sunburn, but UVA can be more damaging to the skin in the long term", she said.

Professor Hanrahan warns not to rely solely on a broad-spectrum sunscreen, but to use it along with other sun-protection measures.

To protect you from the harmful effects of sun:

  • wear a hat and protective clothing, such as cool cotton shirts with long sleeves, or a ‘rashie’ in the water
  • wear sunglasses with proper UV lenses
  • drink plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • stick to the shade, for example, use an umbrella or beach hut
  • stay out of the sun when UV rays are strongest (usually 11am to 3pm).

If you do get burnt

There's no fast-fix for sunburn. It can take 12 to 24 hours to feel the full extent and severity of sunburn, and several days for your skin to start healing. But you can help ease the discomfort (see Tips for easing mild sunburn).

If you get seriously sunburnt see a doctor, especially if the area is blistered and very painful, you feel sick in the stomach or have a bad headache.

In extreme cases, staying in the sun for too long can cause ‘sun stroke’ (or heat stroke), especially when you don’t drink enough water. Seek medical attention if you or your child is unwell after heat or sun exposure, especially if you’re dizzy or confused, have a high temperature and symptoms of dehydration, for example dry mouth, thirst or not urinating for a long period.

Tips for easing mild sunburn

  • Apply cool water compresses or soak in a cool bath — don't put ice on your burns.
  • Aloe Vera based gels or creams can be soothing — avoid products containing alcohol as these can further dry out skin.
  • Over-the-counter pain relievers such as paracetamol (e.g. Panadol) or ibuprofen (e.g. Nurofen) may help ease the pain of sunburn.

Swimming, spikes and stingers

Sunburn is not the only potential danger at the beach. You might unwittingly step on a stingray or sea urchin, or swim into a bluebottle — leaving you with a nasty sting or spine in your foot.

First aid for sea stings and spikes

Most encounters with ocean creatures are minor and only require simple first aid, although there are some exceptions such as poisonous bites and stings.

Contrary to popular belief, vinegar is not helpful for bluebottle stings; instead you should wash the area with sea water (not fresh water) and remove any tentacles.

To ease the pain and trauma of minor stingray, sea urchin and bluebottle injuries, soak the affected area in hot water (45 ºC or as hot as you can tolerate) for up to 90 minutes. If you still have pain, an over-the-counter pain reliever such as paracetamol (e.g. Panadol) or ibuprofen (e.g. Nurofen) may help.

After a sea urchin injury, remove the spines close to the surface of skin.  See a doctor if there’s a chance you haven’t removed everything.

When to get help

It’s important to seek medical help if you are stung or bitten in the water, as it’s often impossible to know what has stung you and how poisonous it might be. In Australia, if you have concerns about a suspected poisoning, call the Poisons Information Centre on 13 11 26 any time. Even puncture wounds that are not poisonous can become infected if they are not cleaned properly. If there is bleeding, apply pressure to the wound and seek medical attention immediately, particularly if the wound is in the chest or stomach area.

Get urgent medical help if someone has difficulty breathing, if their lips or tongue are swelling, if they’re acting confused, or have severe pain or uncontrolled bleeding.

You should also get medical advice if any injury worsens, or if the person seems to be getting worse instead of better — it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Being medicinewise with pain relievers and children

  • Before you use a pain reliever, check it’s suitable for you or your child. Ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.
  • When giving a pain medicine to a child, work out the dose based on their weight. Use the dosing instructions on the medicine label or packaging.
  • If your child is particularly large or small for their age, before you go on holiday check with a pharmacist or doctor what dose to give your child.
Find out more about giving medicines to children.