A Healthy Holiday

By staff December 1, 2002

Sarasota is an exotic mixed bag of adventures that draws millions of visitors every year, but year-round residents know there's a price to pay for living in paradise. For example, our sublime sub-tropical weather is a prime breeding atmosphere for pesky fire ants and spectacular lightning storms. Our seductive waters are a boater's dream, but surprise a lazy 'gator on a narrow riverbank and he'll scare you witless.

To the uninitiated, it can seem like a jungle out there, but don't be put off by hysterical news reports implying there's danger lurking beneath every boulder. There isn't; it just helps to know your way around. So gather close to learn the secrets of the natives, and we'll give you a few tips on how to survive your Sarasota vacation.

THE BEACH-During high season, thousands of squatters dot Sarasota's public beaches. Lifeguard stands in Sarasota County are painted to give beachgoers more points of reference, but Scott Montgomery, Sarasota's lifeguard manager, says children get lost daily.

Before releasing your little ones into the crowd, try asking them, "What color is our beach umbrella?" Make sure they can recite their telephone number and address. Then ask, "Who do you ask for if you don't see Mommy or Daddy?" Only if they answer, "A lifeguard or a police officer" should they be allowed to plunge headlong into the ocean.

Also, apply a sunscreen of SPF15 at least 30 minutes before going out. Montgomery says summer perspiration makes it difficult for protective lotions to adhere to the skin, and nothing ruins a vacation like sun poisoning-or skin cancer later in life. Sarasota pediatrician Ted Meyer says childhood exposure to sun dictates lifetime cancer risk. He recommends that in addition to sunscreen, children wear T-shirts and hats.

STINGRAYS-Sarasota has two types of rays. The first are harmless, diamond-shaped cow rays that glide along the surface in search of food. The second type, stingrays, feed just below silt on the ocean floor and carry a sharp barb on their tail. If you step on one unintentionally, that tail may whip around and inflict a painful sting. To avoid them, shuffle your feet through the sand as you walk. They'll pick up the vibrations and scoot away.

If you think you've been stung, soak the injury in hot water. "As hot as you can stand it," says Montgomery. "Heat draws out the toxins." Occasionally, the barb will break off into the skin, slicing your foot like a sharp knife. When this happens, seek medical attention. A lifeguard can determine if the barb has been left behind.

SHARKS-The media hyped 2001 as the "summer of the shark," but the 37 shark attacks that Florida reported were actually fewer than the 38 posted in 2000. The International Shark Attack File reports that sharks killed only one person in Florida last year. "Anytime you go into the Gulf, there's probably a shark swimming within 100 feet of you," says Montgomery, but the truth is, there's almost no chance that shark will bother you.

To avoid sharks, don't swim at dusk or dawn, their usual feeding times. Don't swim alone. Pay attention to murky water; sharks have notoriously bad eyesight and most bites to humans occur when they mistake a flipper, wet suit or dark bathing suit for a fish. If you see bait fish fluttering about and breaking the surface, beware. Something is chasing them. If you're already in the water and spot a shark close by, Montgomery says just stay still until it passes. Then exit the water and alert lifeguards so they can monitor the situation.

RIP TIDES-Montgomery calls this the No. 1 problem on Florida's beaches. Rip tides occur when incoming waters rushing back out to sea create an unusually strong current. Swimmers who wander into them find it nearly impossible to get back to shore. The National Weather Service (NWS) says rip tides account for 30 drownings every year in Florida, and Montgomery adds that those who don't drown in one can have a stress-induced heart attack. Fortunately, our Gulf beaches are more tranquil than the east coast's Atlantic shore, but if you do encounter rough water, remember a few safety tips:

Never try to swim against a rip current in a straight line toward the beach. "Swim to the left or right," says Montgomery. And stay calm-Montgomery says most rip tides are less than five yards wide. Once you're free from them, you can easily return to shore.

THE HEAT-One day this past summer, the heat index in Sarasota reached a sweltering 112 degrees. Such extreme heat can cause cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Avoid all of them by drinking plenty of water and avoiding alcohol, which dehydrates the body. And take other common-sense precautions, such as playing tennis, running or doing other exercise in the cool of the morning or evening instead of under the noontime sun.

Symptoms of heat exhaustion include heavy sweating, muscle cramps, weakness, dizziness, nausea or vomiting and fainting. If you stop sweating altogether and your skin feels cold and clammy, get out of the sun immediately-you may be experiencing heat stroke, a condition where the body's temperature can soar to 106 degrees or higher within 15 minutes. It can rapidly progress to unconsciousness and even death.

INSECT STINGS-Wasps, bees and fire ants all create nests below the ground, and our sandy soil makes the perfect construction material. Fire ants are the most notorious because of their aggressive nature. Unfortunate souls who wander upon a nest can disturb the colony and receive painful, itchy bites.

Even if you avoid their nests, a single errant pest may hitch a ride on your shoe as you walk by, so if you're stung, stay alert for allergic reactions. Most bites can be treated with antihistamines, but if you experience trouble swallowing or breathing, or tingling in the mouth or skin, get to an emergency room pronto. You may be experiencing anaphylactic shock, a serious reaction that can kill.

RED TIDE-According to Mote Marine Laboratory, the first recorded incidence of red tide occurred off the coast of Venice, Florida, in the fall of 1947. Residents were so rattled by the thousands of dead fish and stinging air that they feared they'd been attacked by nerve gas.

Red tides are algae blooms that begin in the ocean and drift onshore, and they have been recorded in many parts of the world. The neurotoxins in red tide kill fish and have been implicated in the deaths of whales, manatees and dolphins that eat contaminated fish.

In humans, red tide can induce burning sensations in the eyes and nose and occasionally a dry, choking cough. For that reason, people with respiratory problems should check the Florida Red Tide hotline before heading out (492-3156, ext. 4). It identifies beaches currently experiencing algae blooms.

LIGHTNING-Florida is the lightning capital of the U.S., and the National Weather Service says lightning kills an average of 10 people every year here. At Sarasota County beaches, lifeguards have detectors that tell them if lightning strikes within a certain distance from the beach. Since lightning can strike as far as 10 miles away from an approaching storm, and many people killed are nowhere near rainfall, Montgomery says, "If you hear thunder, it's time to leave. Lightning strikes the tallest object on the beach, and if you're on the beach, you're the tallest object."

Stay off the golf course, the tennis court, and dock your boat during storms. Objects like golf clubs, fishing rods, and tennis racquets attract lightning, and lightning that strikes water can travel a considerable distance from the point of contact. Go indoors or inside a car (not a convertible). If you can't get inside safely, move below the tree line and crouch down in a small grove of trees. And stay away from groups of people-picnic shelters, baseball dugouts and bleachers are not safe.

ALLIGATORS-Robert Dye, park manager at Myakka River State Park, says in all his 24 years at the park, "We've never had an alligator bite." During our dry season, alligators do sometimes wander into swimming pools in search of water, but according to Dye, "There's only one dangerous animal that you'll ever encounter in a park, and it has two legs and walks upright." He attributes any problems with alligators to humans feeding them, which is illegal. Once they associate a human with food, he says, they usually must be destroyed.

Dye advises people to enjoy these majestic creatures from afar. He says a 'gator lying prostrate in the sun is conserving its energy to feed at night. They only become aggressive with each other during territorial disputes over potential mates, or when their youngsters are threatened. "Don't pick up baby alligators, no matter how cute they are," warns Dye. "Mothers stay close to their young, so if you spot a one- or two-foot 'gator, move on." Also, don't wade or fish at night in areas that alligators populate. Alligators have poor eyesight and are attracted to food sources by sound. If they hear you splashing around after a trout, they could mistake you for the fish.

RACCOONS-With their masked eyes and adorable babies trailing behind, our raccoons can be too cute for visitors to ignore. In most parts of the country, raccoons rarely come out during the day, but here they've become accustomed to scavenging for food in dumpsters. Dye says if you discover one struggling to escape, don't reach in to help it out-those cute critters bite. "If it found its way in, it'll find its way out," he says.

Watch those squirrels, too. Dye preaches respect for any furry little animal that can open a nut with its mouth when humans need a mallet. "Some of our worst bites have come from squirrels," says Dye. He's even seen bites to the lips of visitors who tried to feed them potato chips from their mouths.

A squirrel bite will send you to the hospital for a tetanus shot, but if you get plugged by a raccoon, you'll need rabies shots, too, since it's usually impossible to locate the one that bit you.

Other tips for dealing with squirrels and raccoons: Don't leave ice chests open. Keep the chests and all food up and away from tents and sleeping areas. Dye says raccoons will rip apart a tent in search of food.

SNAKES-In Sarasota, we see mostly black racers, yellow rat snakes and garter snakes. All are harmless. The most prevalent venomous snake is the pygmy rattlesnake, so called because it seldom reaches beyond 20 inches; but we also have diamondback rattlers and cottonmouths. Dye stresses that if you've walked in the woods at all, you've passed many without even knowing it.

Bites are rare. At Myakka, most occur on the hand or fingers of people trying to catch or kill snakes. Avoiding trouble is as simple as watching where you put your feet. Don't cram your hand under logs or anywhere else that you can't see into first.

Another comforting note: "Snakes use venom to capture and kill prey," says Dye. "If a snake bites you in self-defense, it rarely injects venom."

If you are bitten, stay calm. Try to determine what kind of snake bit you and seek medical attention immediately. Do not wrap tourniquets around the wound. Dye says snake venom contains anticoagulants that allow for easier distribution in the victim. Wrapping something tight around an arm with a bite will isolate the venom and cause considerably more tissue damage.

Heed all these hints and you'll return home safe with a tan, all your digits intact and great memories to last a lifetime.



Walk-in and emergency care.

Dr. Pamela Mumma, of Sarasota Family Medical Walk-In Clinic, says she probably sees more visitors with stingray bites than any other injury. Other common problems are sunburns and allergies exacerbated by red tides. The most unusual injury she treats? Dolphin bites. "People keep trying to feed the dolphins that feed beneath the Blackburn Point bridge near Venice," she says.

Visitors also get colds, stomach upsets and other illnesses they might suffer at home. If you need emergency or walk-in care during your visit, here's where to look:

Bon Secours-Venice Hospital

540 The Rialto, Venice

(941) 485-7711

Doctor's Hospital of Sarasota

5731 Bee Ridge Road, Sarasota

(941) 342-1100

Med Plus Medical Group

2130 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

(941) 363-9474

Sarasota Memorial Hospital

1700 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

(941) 917-9000

Sarasota Medical Center (Walk-In)

4450 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

(941) 927-1234

Sarasota Family Medical Walk-In Clinic

6813 S. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota

(941) 923-5861

St. Armands Medical Center

500 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands

(941) 388-4408

The Circle Family Practice Walk-In

542 John Ringling Blvd., St. Armands

(941) 388-1108

Dr. Ted Meyer, Pediatrician

1666 Mound St., Sarasota

(941) 365-9369

Walk-in hour from 7:30-8:30 a.m. weekdays. 

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