TAMPA, Fla. — Red tide is affecting many of the Tampa Bay area's beautiful waterways, causing dead sea life to wash up on shore. Aside from being incredibly foul-smelling, the algal blooms can have negative impacts on your health while you're around it.
Red tide is a harmful algal bloom, or HAB, that is created when plants in the sea grow out of control and cause harmful toxins. Those toxins can have negative impacts on people, marine mammals, birds, fish and shellfish.
In Florida and the Gulf of Mexico, the species responsible for the most red tides is called Karenia brevis, and is often abbreviated as K. brevis.
The Florida Department of Health says most people can swim in red tide waters but note that it can be uncomfortable and irritating for some. High levels of bacteria can cause itchy skin and increase the risk of urinary tract infections. Dr. Michael Alvarez, a pulmonologist and critical care physician at BayCare, says you probably shouldn't swim in red tide waters and should avoid areas with high concentrations of it.
"It can give you a cough, sneezing, watery eyes," explained Dr. Alvarez. He says symptoms associated with red tide exposure can be especially uncomfortable for people with underlying health conditions, like COPD or asthma.
Most people feel symptoms only during their exposure at the beach or near affected waterways but subside within a couple of hours of leaving the area.
"Over time, I don't think there's going to be long-term detrimental, chronic effects from it. It's while you're in the situation, near the water," said Dr. Alvarez.
If you do have persistent, lasting symptoms from your red tide exposure you should see a doctor. They may prescribe an antihistamine or an inhaler.
If you can't avoid being near red tide blooms because you live or work in the area, you should wear a mask, like the ones worn to protect you from COVID-19. "The particle size of the breva toxin is the same size as respiratory droplets, so a regular face mask will help you avoid transmission and lessen those symptoms," said Dr. Alvarez.
If you do swim in water with concerning levels of red tide, you should avoid putting your head under water and getting it into your eyes. After swimming, you should rinse off with fresh, clean water as soon as possible.