Red Tide FAQs : Residents and visitors with respiratory issues should avoid Martin beaches

Martin County advises beachgoers to swim at their own risk. (Red Tide photo: NOAA)

As red tide blooms approach coastal areas, breaking waves can cause their toxins to become mixed with airborne sea spray. People in coastal areas can experience varying degrees of eye, nose, and throat irritation. When a person leaves an area with a red tide, symptoms usually go away. People with severe or chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic lung disease are cautioned to avoid areas with active red tides.

One of the most frequent symptoms people experience during a Karenia brevis (also known as K. brevis) red tide is respiratory irritation. If you have ever visited a beach during a red tide, you may have experienced the “red tide tickle” which can include itchy throat and coughing. Brevetoxins, chemicals produced by K. brevis, may also irritate pre-existing respiratory conditions including asthma, bronchitis and/or chronic lung disease. Persons with asthma are advised to bring their inhaler to the beach during a red tide or avoid the area until conditions improve. Some swimmers experience skin irritation and rashes after swimming in waters with a severe red tide. They have also reported eye irritation from the sea foam. In some red tides, dead fish and other sea life may wash ashore; during these conditions, it is advised that beachgoers avoid swimming in water where dead fish are present and if experiencing respiratory irritation, leave the beach area.

Shellfish like clams, oysters, and coquinas that are harvested from areas near or in active red tides should not be eaten. These shellfish are filter feeders that can concentrate the toxins. Scallops can be consumed if only the scallop muscle is eaten. Scallop stew, using the whole animal including guts, should not be eaten. Seafood, also commonly called shellfish such as crabs, shrimp, and lobster can be eaten because they do not concentrate the toxin. However, the hepatopancreas or “tomalley” should be discarded.

Some of the most significant toxins produced by harmful algal blooms in Florida are brevetoxins and saxitoxins. The health effects from these toxins can include foodborne poisonings.  Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP) is caused by the consumption of molluscan shellfish (such as clams, oysters, scallops, mussels and other filter-feeders) contaminated with brevetoxin, which is associated with Florida red tide. Other states report cases of Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP), which is caused by a different marine toxin called saxitoxin. In Florida, saxitoxin is uniquely found in contaminated  puffer fish harvested from the Indian River Lagoon. The resulting illness is called Saxitoxin Puffer Fish Poisoning. You cannot tell if shellfish or finfish are toxic by taste, odor or appearance.

How long does a red tide last?
Red tide blooms can last days, weeks or months, and can also change daily due to wind conditions and ocean currents.

Is it safe to swim in water affected by red tide?
While people swim in red tide, some individuals may experience skin irritation and burning eyes. If your skin is easily irritated, avoid red tide water. If you experience irritation, get out of the ocean and thoroughly wash off with fresh water.

Can red tide affect me when I am not on the beach?
People in coastal areas near the shoreline may experience varying degrees of eye, nose, and throat irritation.  When a person leaves an area with red tide, symptoms usually go away. If symptoms persist, please seek medical attention.

Are there people who are more sensitive to the toxins caused by red tide?
People with respiratory problems (like asthma, emphysema or bronchitis) should avoid red tide areas, especially when winds are blowing on shore. If you go to the beach and have one of these conditions, you should be very cautious. If you have symptoms, leave the beach and seek air conditioning (A/C). If symptoms persist, please seek medical attention.

What can I do to lessen the effects of red tide?
People usually get relief from respiratory symptoms by being in air-conditioned spaces. This is also true when driving: keep your car windows up and the A/C or heat on. For people without asthma or any other chronic respiratory problems, over-the-counter antihistamines may relieve symptoms. People with chronic lung ailments should be especially vigilant about taking prescribed medications daily. Always seek medical care if your symptoms worsen.

Can red tide affect pets?
Just like people, pets may be affected by red tide. If you live close to the beach, consider bringing outdoor pets inside during a bloom to prevent respiratory irritation. If you are at the beach with your pets, do not allow them to play with dead fish or foam that may accumulate on the beach during or after a red tide. If your pet swims in the red tide, wash them off with freshwater as soon as possible.

Is Seafood in the Area Safe to Eat?
Clams and oysters (mollusks) can contain red tide toxins that cause Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning. Check local harvesting status before collecting at Finfish caught live and healthy can be eaten if filleted and rinsed thoroughly. Edible meat of crabs, shrimp and lobsters (shellfish) can be eaten (do not eat the tomalley – the green digestive gland – of shellfish). Do not eat distressed or animals found dead under any circumstances.

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