Recent reports of a dangerous staph bacteria surfacing on the coast of Washington state may have Floridians asking questions about the safety of their own beaches.
Experts say it's always smart to think about water safety in general, and preventing bacterial contamination in particular. But skip the beach? No way, says Marilyn Roberts, researcher of the study that raised questions about MRSA on Washington's beaches.
Still, Roberts and other experts said, it's smart to know what MRSA and other bugs are, and how you can be exposed to them. Hint: If you're one of those people who think a great way to heal a wound is to take a dip in the ocean, you're wrong.
The hard-to-treat bug known as methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA, is more commonly found in hospitals, schools, day care centers and gyms. Until recently, it had not been reported at beaches, and Florida beaches are not tested for its presence.
But more than 300 Florida beaches, including almost two dozen in Pinellas and Hillsborough, are tested weekly for two other types of bacteria that tend to show up when harmful pollutants are present. While it's rare that harmful levels are found, experts say it's never a bad idea to play carefully at the beach.
"Always remember, the ocean is nature," said David Polk, coordinator for the state's Healthy Beaches program. "When you go the beach, before you eat, remember to wash your hands. Remember to take a shower and practice good sanitary hygiene."
MRSA and staph
Staph is a type of a bacteria commonly found in the nose and on the skin. In fact, about 30 percent of people carry it in their noses, but don't have any symptoms, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
MRSA is a type of staph that is resistant to some antibiotics. It usually is responsible for skin infections, which can almost always be treated. More serious infections are rare in healthy people.
MRSA skin infections look like sores or boils - red, swollen, painful and pus-filled. They occur commonly where there are cuts in the skin and in areas of the body covered by hair.
For some time, health officials have warned that schools, day cares and jails are conducive to the spread of MRSA. So are athletic facilities, where many people are touching common surfaces like weight benches or sharing towels, and during highly physical contact sports like wrestling and football.
Now preliminary research suggests the bacteria may be more prevalent at beaches than previously thought.
In coastal Washington state, researchers said they have found MRSA in marine water and beach sand. Their study was small - the bacteria was found in half of the 10 beaches tested - and has not yet been published, a step that generally subjects scientific work to rigorous review.
Still, there's nothing unique about the beaches in Washington, noted Roberts, the researcher and professor of public health at the University of Washington, calling the findings relevant nationally.
Since more people go swimming in Florida's warmer water, she said, our beaches may harbor even more staph bacteria, including MRSA, than the colder water tested on the West Coast.
Earlier this year, researchers at the University of Miami reported that swimmers at public beaches face increased risk for exposure to staph bacteria. But their study, which also has not been published, found very little MRSA in the waters sampled.
None of this means people should stay away from Florida beaches. That's just "silly," said Roberts, stressing the importance of caution, especially if cuts or abrasions are exposedto the water and sand.
"If things start getting red and pussy and oozy, those things need to be washed," she said, noting that it's okay to use topical antibiotics. "But if it doesn't start getting better in a few days, then you need to see help. Don't let it go any further."
Testing program keeps eye on beach health
While Florida beaches are not tested for MRSA, public health officials frequently screen for pollutants that can cause people to get sick, most commonly with upset stomachs and diarrhea.
The Healthy Beaches program tests for two types of bacteria: fecal coliform and enterococci, considered indicators of poor water quality.
Stormwater runoff, pets, wildlife and human sewage can contribute to high concentrations. But such findings are rare. Only about 4 percent of samples statewide come back high enough for health officials to issue advisories, said Polk, the program coordinator.
Industrial and chemical pollutants are monitored through other government efforts that tend to be more focused on the health of the ecosystem, which applies to human safety as well as marine life.
But local health departments weekly sample water from six beaches in Hillsborough and 14 in Pinellas. Runoff after heavy rainfall is a primary source of problems, officials say. The beaches that are prime concerns are North Shore in St. Petersburg and Ben T. Davis on the Courtney Campbell Parkway.
Brandy Downing, Healthy Beaches coordinator for Pinellas, noted that the old advice about going into the water to help with healing isn't necessarily true.
But at eight months pregnant, she's not worried about being out in the water every week, or even wiggling her bare toes on its shores. "I even play in the sand with my feet."
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3322. For more health news, visit www.tampabay.com/health.
Playing safely at the beach
Health experts warn people to be careful about exposing cuts or skin abrasions to the beach environment. Try to keep cuts clean and monitor for any signs of infection.
Most at risk of getting sick are infants and toddlers, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems, such as cancer patients or those who recently received organ transplants.
You can check out the latest water sampling results for beaches tested across Florida at www.floridashealth.com/beachwater.
Learn more about MRSA at www.cdc.gov/mrsa/.