Every year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission deals with red tide concerns. Though the time is never consistent, ‘red tide,’ or the influx of Karenia brevis algae that turns the water reddish-brown, has been a dangerous phenomenon for the central and southern coasts of Florida since the 1840s. As the algae multiply and bloom, these toxic aquatic organisms can not only kill the marine life and birds in the area but can also pollute the air and cause respiratory problems for humans. Here is what you need to know about ‘red tide’ season. 

What Is Red Tide?

Red tides are so named because the harmful algal blooms (HABs) that occur along coastal regions cause the water to turn reddish-brown. They result from large accumulation of aquatic microorganisms that contain brevetoxins. These toxins, which can also become airborne, can kill scores of fish, make shellfish dangerous to eat and cause the coastal air to burn people’s nose and throats and exacerbate respiratory problems.

Where Do They Occur?

In the United States, Florida’s central and southwestern coasts are the most likely to see high concentrations of algae, but red tide may occur anywhere in the Gulf of Mexico. K. brevis blooms have also occurred along the southeastern Atlantic coast, but this is much less common.

How Can Red Tide Make You Sick?

Anyone who is exposed to the airborne red tide toxins is at risk for upper and lower respiratory symptoms including coughing, sneezing, runny nose, wheezing or shortness of breath. For people with chronic respiratory conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, the threat is even greater as exposure to brevetoxins can cause a worsening of respiratory symptoms. This is why experts suggest people with respiratory illnesses should avoid affected beaches during red tides.

Red tide toxins can also accumulate in shellfish such as oysters and clams, which can lead to Neurotoxic Shellfish Poisoning (NSP) in anyone who consumes the contaminated mollusks. This is not commonly fatal for humans but may be for pets and other land animals. Those with NSP will have diarrhea and discomfort for three days or more.

Steps To Take to Stay Safe 

  • Avoid Red Tide Areas: Swimming off a coast experiencing red tide or breathing in tiny droplets in the air that contain toxins while you are hanging out on the sandy shore can impact your lung health, so you should avoid or limit your exposure to these areas. 
  • Don’t Exercise Outside: If you have a chronic lung condition or live near a beach, do not exercise outside when the red tide is present. Additionally, keep your doors and windows shut to reduce the toxins from entering your home. 
  • Action Plans: If you have asthma or COPD, review your Action Plan with your physician and your family. Keep it nearby in case of emergency.
  • Medications: During red tide, make sure you continue taking your regular medications and keep your quick relief or “rescue” inhaler with you at all times in case of a flare-up.
  • Be aware of common symptoms: People with or without chronic lung disease may develop health problems during red tide, even if they’ve never had them before. Common symptoms include:
    • Respiratory irritation (coughing, sneezing)
    • Shortness of breath
    • Throat irritation
    • Eye irritation
    • Skin irritation
    • Asthma attacks
  • Contact your healthcare provider if you have any concerns about your lung health.
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