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Algae and Bacteria in Water: Can it Make You Sick?

Algae blooms that have infested hundreds of miles of Florida’s waterways, red tide along the Gulf Coast and warnings about Miami-area beach waters containing high levels of bacteria are all raising questions this summer about how to stay healthy while enjoying some of the state’s most coveted natural resources.

Experts say the algae coming from Lake Okeechobee can be toxic if consumed by humans, and potentially fatal for dogs that swim in or drink the scum that hovers at the water’s surface.

“People who come in contact with the algae should wash it off to avoid irritation to their skin,” said Richard P. Stumpf, an oceanographer with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), in a New York Times article [1].

News headlines in late July about a three-year-old girl suspected contracting a bacterial infection from swimming in waters off Key Biscayne highlighted the health dangers of water-borne bacteria. Key Biscayne is home to two of several areas of beach water that have exceeded Federal- and State-recommended standards for enterococci bacteria this summer, according to the Florida Department of Health [2]. Levels of enterococci indicate the presence of fecal material in salt water which can pose health risks to people fishing and swimming.

While scientists research algae blooms and health officials monitor beach water, doctors are advising people about the harmful effects exposure to contaminated water can have.

Contaminated Water

“Contamination can come and go and be separated by beaches along the same coastline by only a few miles,” said Fernando Mendoza, M.D. [3], medical director of the Children’s Emergency Center [4] at Baptist Children’s Hospital [5] and associate medical director of Pediatric Emergency Services at West Kendall Baptist Hospital. “It’s really important to be up-to-date and check advisories before going to the beach.”

He recommends people with open wounds or cuts to stay out of the water. Vibrio vulnificus, a type of bacteria that lives naturally in warm coastal waters, causes diarrhea when ingested. It can also cause severe skin infections if it comes in contact with an open wound.

“Sea water is not sterile,” he said. “Sea life, seaweed and even sand on the beach can be sources for bacterial infection.”

Signs of a bacterial skin infection can include pain, swelling and blisters.

“If you start to suspect some type of infection, like noticing some redness or a rash that wasn’t there before, see a doctor,” Dr. Mendoza advises. “He or she can examine it to see if it’s an infection obtained at the beach or somewhere else.”

Most bacterial skin infections are treated with antibiotics. And while staying healthy at the beach is important, Dr. Mendoza emphasizes that most beaches are safe, despite the health and safety precautions that can arise.

“For the most part, you want to treat the beach like any other outdoor activity,” he adds.