Health: Daredevil daytrippers

I do like to be beside the seaside. But it's a dangerous business
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The Independent Culture
Cut by razor fish, stung by jellyfish, sickened by shellfish, nipped by crabs; holidaymakers have been finding that going to the seaside can be a traumatic time. As if the British weather wasn't enough to contend with; rain and wind or blistering sun, there are the added dangers of hidden viruses and bacteria in the water, toxic algae, contaminated waste, oil slicks, and floating sewage.

All unpleasant by-products of modern living that the Victorians were blissfully free from when they first started dipping their toes in the water. Paddling and taking the bracing air of the seaside was then accepted as being as one of the healthiest things to do. But for many people now, the seaside can be a dangerous place and up to one third of the patients seen at coastal hospital casualty units are holidaymakers and day trippers.

For those who survive unscathed from a dip in the sea there are the stress- induced heart attacks and strokes to worry about. There are also accidents such as the occasional thumb or finger-top lost in assembling a deck chair, and there's the danger of food poisoning from mussels and other locally caught produce. "The stress of coming on holiday can turn a chronic illness into an acute one and a lot of people don't make an adequate assessment of their health before they come on holiday,'' says Dr Mark Sedgwick, accident and emergency consultant at Blackpool's Victoria Hospital.

He estimates that 10 to 15 per cent of casualty patients are visitors: "We see about 5,000 people a month in the low season, but that goes up to more than 8,000 in the high season, so we probably see about 8,000 or so visitors a year,'' he says.

Hospitals and doctors around Torbay had a more sudden and dramatic increase in their workload two weeks ago when around 800 people were cut by an invasion of razor fish. It was not quite Jaws, but thousands fled the beaches in Torbay, many of them with cuts inflicted on their feet by the eight-inch-long creatures, which lurk in the sand.

Sydney Lewis, aged 35, whose injuries were treated by ambulance paramedics, said: "I felt a sharp pain in my foot and I thought it was broken glass. But then I felt around and pulled out this shellfish.'' Jellyfish are more commonly encountered hazards in British waters than razors and can inflict nasty stings with their tails. Medical treatment is not always necessary, but general advice is that stings on the face should be looked at.

Sewage and E.coli organisms are a big problem in some coastal waters and have been associated with stomach upsets, diarrhoea and other health problems. There have also been reports that some viral infections can survive in contaminated waters, producing, it is claimed, ME-like symptoms.

But exactly what germs, bugs, bacteria and viruses lurk in the water is not fully known. Nor is it clear how toxic they can be, although even algae blooms, a phenomenon that occurs mostly in summer weather conditions, can be hazardous to health.

New research in the United States has found a previously unknown illness caused by an algae known as pfiesteria, which was discovered in people around the beaches of Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Doctors found that local people had begun to experience headaches, weight loss, skin irritation and even memory problems after exposure to the algae.

To try and find out what was happening, Professor Glen Morris launched a research project, reported in the current issue of The Lancet, which found that the more people were exposed to the contaminated water, the worse they got.

"Our conclusion is that people who are exposed to water in which these toxins are present are at risk of developing difficulties with learning and higher cognitive functions,'' says Professor Morris.

As well as the natural seaside dangers awaiting the unwary or the unlucky, there are the man-made and sometimes self-inflicted problems, such as diving when there is not enough water.

Dr David Grundy, consultant in spinal injuries in Salisbury, has made a study of the injuries people suffer when they dive into water that is too shallow. Each year around 60 people are admitted to spinal injury units around the UK with tetraplegia as a result of such diving accidents.

"Most of the injuries occur when the head strikes the bottom of the sea or the pool, or hits a submerged rock. The victims were all young, with an average age of 24, and almost all of them were men,,'' he says.

He believes that the number of people who suffer such accidents is under- reported because if help is not at hand they will drown and spinal injuries are often not picked up in post mortems.

Deeper sea diving also has its health risks, and there has been an increase in the number of people getting the bends as more people take up scuba diving as a leisure activity.

"Some people choose their holidays to dive for the first time while others only dive while they are on holiday. Many are inexperienced and it is this group that are most at risk,'' said a spokesman for BUPA, which has opened Britain's newest hyperbaric unit at Hull.

Kate Horsley, 39, went for a day trip to the seaside and ended up spending most of the time in a hospital diving chamber. She and her husband Geoff had travelled to Bridlington to scuba dive but Mrs Horsley was stung by a jellyfish and then suffered with the bends and had to be taken by helicopter to the new hyperbaric oxygen chamber at the Hull BUPA hospital.

"We had been diving for some time and I had been fine when we came up until I reached the shore. I started to get a numb and then tingling sensation in my feet and legs and it was quite unpleasant," Mrs Horsley says. "They took me to hospital and then I was flown to Hull, where I sat in a pressurised chamber with a doctor and nurse until the symptoms went away. It was quite a day.''

Back at Blackpool, Dr Sedgwick says that the range of cases that he and his colleagues on the front line see is vast. "People tend to drink too much. They sometimes fall over, get hit by buses and trams or other people, and sometimes fall off the sea wall. We are very busy,'' he says.

"There are people who get increased angina when they lug their suitcases around or when they walk too far. We get cases of food poisoning, people who have been attacked, patients who have lost their medication, diabetics who experience problems, and we have the seaside unusual,'' Dr Sedgwick says. Unusual? "Very unusual,'' he says. "In the latest Bailey and Love surgical text book there is a photograph of an X-ray of someone's abdomen and inside their anatomy is a pepper pot and on the pepper pot you can clearly see the letters, `Souvenir of Margate'.''