Even the most beautiful beaches in Hawaii are rampant with e. coli and other bacteria, a new study reports

By Charlotte Hilton Andersen
July 20, 2015

Nothing says summer like long days spent at the beach-sun, sand, and surf provide the perfect way to relax and get your vitamin D (not to mention gorgeous beachy hair). But you may be getting more from your afternoon at the beach than you bargained for: After surveying popular beaches in Hawaii, researchers from the University of Hawaii found that bacteria love the beach just as much as humans do. Turns out, the sand contained high levels of nasty bugs like E. coli.

The researchers discovered that warm, moist sand provides the ideal breeding ground for bacteria brought in by waste water run-off, sewage, or garbage dumped on the beach. "Beach sand needs to be considered carefully in assessing its impact on public health," cautioned lead author Tao Yan, Ph.D. The side effect from your perfect afternoon in contaminated sand? Things like diarrhea, vomiting, rashes, and infections, the study authors warn. (It's even one of 4 Surprising Causes of Urinary Tract Infections-ew!)

But don't freak out and cancel that trip to Cabo just yet, says Russ Kino, M.D., the medical director of the Emergency Department at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA. "There's nothing to worry about from walking or playing on the beach," he says. "If you have an open wound on your legs or feet then there is a risk of infection, but just walking around the beach? Forget it. You're safe."

He doesn't dispute that there are poop germs (and worse) on beaches, but he says that our built-in safety system-our skin-does a great job of keeping germs out. Even if you're doing something a little more dirty, like letting your friends bury you in the sand, enjoying a picnic on the beach, or having a romantic (ahem) moment, you're more likely to get sick from the activity than you are from the sand, according to Kino. (Sorry to burst your bubble, but here are 5 Realities About Sex on the Beach.)

"Honestly, the biggest risk from the beach is a sunburn," he says, adding that his number one tip for beach safety is to wear a hat and shirt with UPF protection and a good sunscreen, as melanoma is still the number one cancer killer of women under 35 years of age.

The study concludes that you'll be safer in the water than out, but Kino disagrees. "There are some aggressive, dangerous bacteria found in water-particularly warm ocean water," he says. (And not just in the ocean-read up on The Gross Parasite Found in Swimming Pools.)

All beach-goers, whether they're in the sand or surf, should know the signs of infection, he says. If you have a wound that is hot, painful, red and/or leaking discharge, you should see a doctor immediately.

But, realistically, there is no reason to let a fear of germs keep you from enjoying a beach trip, Kino adds, as long as you're taking reasonable precautions like using a clean blanket as a barrier between you and the sand, using clean water and band-aids to treat any cuts or scrapes, and wearing sandals when walking.


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