The Truth about Red Tide Sickness

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Depending on your exposure to the Gulf Coast, you may or may not have heard of Red Tide.  I had heard of it, and had even done some preliminary reading about it, but had never experienced it.  Until this year, that is.
Consider this post a Public Service Announcement.
There is remarkably little information readily available to the public about Red Tide, and what is available is usually funded by Parks & Wildlife and/or the Tourism Industry.  Let’s just say that the information is a wee bit lacking and may even be a conflict of interest.  They have something to hide if they don’t want to lose tourism dollars during a Red Tide Event.  Had I known what Red Tide could really do, I would never have allowed my family within 100 miles of the beach during a Red Tide event.
What I knew before this year was the basic tourism-industry-induced public service announcement.  It goes something like this:
During a Red Tide Bloom, you may experience irritation of the eyes, nose and throat.  You may also experience some coughing.  If you have asthma you should keep your rescue inhaler with you at all times.  If you experience discomfort, simply go into an air conditioned area or leave the beach until you feel better.  You should avoid eating shellfish, but it is fine to eat fish that have been filleted.  Go about your life and be happy.  Red Tide is no big deal.  There is nothing to be afraid of.  We would tell you if this was dangerous.  Yada yada yada.
In fact, this is what one member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife said about it on their Red Tide FAQ page:
Jack Ralph, former head of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Kills and Spills Team, had this to say on the subject: “If it were my family heading to the coast, I would not cancel a vacation because of red tide. It’s an isolated, patchy phenomenon that does not blanket every stretch of beach. On any given day, there are generally miles of good beach and clean water for beach-goers and anglers to enjoy. However, we encourage all travelers to heed the advice of the Texas Department of State Health Services, get the current facts and draw their own conclusions, since different people have different comfort levels with these kinds of situations.”
Kind of makes me think James Ralph isn’t getting out much.  The particular red tide event we encountered stretches at least from Galveston to South Padre Island (approximately 416 miles) and the typical red tide event lasts at least a month.  That isn’t very patchy and isolated, in my opinion.

On the other hand, this is what my oldest son (aka Mustache) had to say about it after our experience:

I think my son has a slightly more accurate view of Red Tide.

So what is Red Tide, and what does it really do to humans?

Here is the condensed version, also from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department:

Red tide is a naturally-occurring, higher-than-normal concentration of the microscopic algae Karenia brevis (formerly Gymnodinium breve).
This organism produces a toxin that affects the central nervous system of fish so that they are paralyzed and cannot breathe. As a result, red tide blooms often result in dead fish washing up on Gulf beaches. When red tide algae reproduce in dense concentrations or “blooms,” they are visible as discolored patches of ocean water, often reddish in color.

Okay, so that was super condensed.  Basically Red Tide is an toxic algae bloom that may or may not turn the water red (hence the name).  When the normal coastal tides & winds push the bloom to shore, the crashing of the waves creates an aerosol of those toxins, perfect for breathing into your lungs.  Thank you, Karenia brevis.  I think I’ll call you “Brevy” for short.  As in Brief.  As in, I will keep all contact with you very, very brief.

The powers that be are happy to admit that Red Tide is an irritant.  They will also admit that it kills fish (since it’s kind of hard to hide the dead fish piling up on the beaches).  They tell you to keep your dog from eating fish, because it will kill your dog.  They warn you not to eat shellfish because you might die, too.  But that’s about as far as they are willing to go.  And by all means, don’t alter your vacation, because this will be FUN!

So now I am going to tell you the rest of the story — The story of what happened to my family, because I am just a little bit miffed that this information was so buried it took me 3 days to find it — AFTER I was sick.  I’m a little bit fumed that I was told it wasn’t dangerous, but 11 days later, I am still in recovery.

—-

We arrived on our favorite Texas Gulf Coast Beach (which shall remain unnamed because they didn’t dump the Red Tide on the beach, and they don’t write the public service announcements).  The day we arrived coincided with the first definite signs of a Red Tide event on that beach.  There was a little scribbled sign letting us know of it’s arrival.  No worries.  I had read the info.  I “knew” it wasn’t harmful to my family.  I wasn’t worried.

We stopped at the RV filling/dumping station to load up on water.  The minute we opened the car door, I coughed.  I told myself it was a placebo effect.  I had read the sign, now I’m coughing.  Totally  in my head.  Then the next family member coughed, and the next, and the next.  We hadn’t even got on the beach yet, and we were all coughing.  But there is nothing to worry about.  Don’t cancel your vacation.  It will still be fun…  I had read (and believed) all the Red Tide literature.

By the time we got camp set up, we weren’t just coughing, we were all hacking.  That’s the only way to describe this kind of cough.  Our noses were running.  We were sneezing.  But we were at the beach.  At this point, the symptoms were just annoying.  I still wasn’t worried.

The longer we stayed, the worse we all got.  Hacking became constant for every single family member.  We quickly ran out of things to blow our noses on.  Now our noses weren’t just running, they were burning like fire.  Things would come in waves — first a hacking session, then the nose burning/running, then sneezing.  It was worse when we were swimming.  Then we started seeing the dead fish.  First there were only a few, then there were more and more.

The powers that be said we could probably move down the beach to get away from the Red Tide.  So we moved almost 20 miles south.  We set up camp again.  By the time we got camp set up, the Red Tide had moved down to our new spot.  Our symptoms were getting worse than just annoying.  We were all starting to feel pretty sick.  The kids didn’t even bother to do much swimming, because the irritation was unbearable when we were in the water.  No one took walks on the beach.  Mostly we just sat around and hacked.  Then the “eye events” began.  It felt like someone had sprayed mace in our eyes.  We couldn’t open them for 30 minutes to an hour at a time, and when we finally could, our eyes were so light sensitive that we had to where sunglasses even in a darkened area.  It was sheer pain.  And we kept getting sicker.

My lungs were more than just irritated.  They hurt.  As long as my kids were having fun, I was determined to endure.  Only they weren’t having fun.  We were all getting sicker by the minute.  My husband and I decided that we would pack up in the morning and leave the beach.  We couldn’t think clearly enough to decide what to do after that.  Just. get. off. the. beach.

That night, we woke up with everyone hacking and some of us truly struggling for breath.   I felt like I could not get air.  I don’t have asthma, folks.  Mustache asked how much longer he had to endure until morning.  May-May wanted to know how much longer this horrible night could possibly last.  I told them I didn’t think it would be much longer, it had to be nearly morning, but I would check.  It was 11pm.  The night had barely started.  

My husband and I realized that the longer we stayed on the beach, the more ill we all became.  No one was  getting any sleep any way.  Sick as we were, we decided to start packing up in the middle of the night (this is only day, two, remember).  As we packed, we repeatedly coughed until we nearly vomited.  Our eyes burned.  We could barely breathe. It was agony.  All we wanted was to be off. that. beach.

I put the kid who was having the most trouble breathing in the SUV with the AC running full-blast.  He began to breathe slightly better.  The rest of us kept struggling and working.  We left the beach at about 2am.  There was only one other campsite still left on 20 miles of beach.  Even the hermit die-hards had run away from the beach.  The humans were gone and there were just miles and miles of dead fish.  

Most of my family began to feel better within 30 minutes or an hour of leaving the beach.  It took a couple days for them to fully come out of it.  Two of us, though, had got very low.  I kept telling my husband, “I feel like it’s gone systemic or something.”  Apparently, it had.  I began dealing with horrible gastro-intenstinal things that I won’t tell you about because it’s just way more than you need to know about me.  I felt like I had both bronchitis AND pneumonia (I’ve had both in the past, so I know what they feel like).  I was lethargic.  I couldn’t think straight.  When I would sit still I would immediately fall asleep — and not just because we’d packed all night.  I had all those symptoms for a solid week after leaving the beach.  Now it’s been 11 days, and I still have a dry cough and some bronchial inflammation.  Thankfully, the rest of my family seems to have fully recovered, although it took one of them 5 or 6 days.  We were only exposed to Red Tide for 2 days.  What if we had continued to stay on the beach!?!

All this prompted me to find out how Red Tide REALLY affects humans.  There is almost NO information.  Florida seems to be the only affected state that is doing any real research on how Red Tide affects humans (or at least the only state that’s talking about it) but they aren’t saying much.  I (eventually) found out that doctors were reporting a 54% increase in bronchitis, pneumonia and similar respiratory  issues during a Red Tide event.  54%!!!!  That’s kind of significant, in my opinion.  Why aren’t we hearing more about that?

I also found out that almost no one (only about 2-10%) even reports the sicknesses they deal with due to Red Tide.  And they aren’t bothering to keep the count of those who deal with respiratory issues.  I guess we only matter if we die of intestinal poisoning, but if we suffocate, we don’t matter.  What gives?

Finally, I found this article from the LA Times.  In it I learned the following little tidbits about “harmless” Red Tide (these points are all taken directly from the article, and I recommend the read.  There is far more information than I am telling you here):

  • Each Karenia cell is a poison factory pumping out toxins collectively known as brevetoxin.

 

  • During red tides, they can be absorbed into the food chain by scallops, oysters and other popular seafood and can cause neurotoxic shellfish poisoning. The effects range from gastrointestinal illness to seizures, loss of muscle control and unconsciousness.

 

  • If inhaled, most particles lodge in the nose and throat, but some are drawn deep into the lungs….researchers reported last year (2005) that red tides coincided with outbreaks of severe respiratory ailments.  During the red tide, admissions for pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma, sinus infections and similar afflictions rose 54%. No such increase was reported inland.

 

  • Most alarming was a 19% increase in cases of pneumonia, a leading cause of death among the elderly.
  • Hundreds of visitors from the Midwest and New England have posted questions and complaints on websites, seeking to learn why, after a short beach vacation on the west coast of Florida, they suffered weeks of coughing, bronchial infections, dizziness, lethargy and other symptoms.

 

  • Ruth DeLynn, a 79-year-old retired biologist and volunteer curator at Mote Marine Laboratory, was hospitalized for five days last year with respiratory distress during a particularly virulent red tide. DeLynn also experienced numbness and a burning sensation in her legs that made it difficult to walk…”Neurological symptoms usually flare only with high levels of exposure,” said Dr. Lora Fleming, a University of Miami epidemiologist and physician. “It’s all about dose.”
  • John Purdy, a surfer, nearly died trying to get back to shore after inhaling the toxin at surf level. He had to receive oxygen on shore.

 

  • Last year’s red tide (2005) took the lives of at least 88 manatees, some weighing more than a ton. Hundreds of these massive sea cows have succumbed during outbreaks in previous years….Greg Bossart, a veterinarian and pathologist at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute in Fort Pierce, dissected the tissue of manatees and determined that many died from inhaling brevetoxin-laden air just above the ocean’s surface. The result was a cascade of nerve and tissue damage that filled their lungs with blood. “The manatees are gassed to death,” Bossart said. “They die of toxic shock.” 

 

 

Ahem…May I remind you that manatees are mammals. Humans are also mammals. 

Generally speaking, humans tend to leave the beach before a manatee will.  It may have something to do with humans having legs, but that’s purely anecdotal.  What if humans didn’t leave the beach when they started to feel bad?  Would humans suffer the fate of the manatees?  I don’t wan’t to stick around long enough to find out, but I can’t help wondering.

From now on, at the very first sign of Red Tide – at the very first cough – we will be running away from the beach.  Red Tide Event = No Beach Event

Do I think that everyone who is exposed to Red Tide will get sick like I did or worse?  No.  Nor do I think that the only people who will get sick are those with a pre-existing condition (as the public service announcements proclaim).  I did not have a pre-existing condition, yet I am still recovering from my exposure 11 days after the fact.  I have an inkling that length and severity of exposure may have more to do with how sick we get than was previously thought, as does personal sensitivity to the toxin.  More research needs to be done, obviously, but I’m not sure how many researchers can afford to offend the tourism industry.

(If you want another, more intellectual article, there is also this one.)

Stick around the ol’ blog.  Next time I’ll tell you how we salvaged our Red-Tide-Destroyed-Vacation.

Have a great day and beware of the Red Tide!

Angela

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10 Comments

  1. Oh, He is! 🙂 I was mostly horrified that a google search didn't bring anything up but the benign public service announcements. People who go to the Gulf in the autumn are going in without any warning of what they might face. That just didn't seem right to me. Perhaps this post will at least bring something up when people try to figure out why the beach made them sick. The rest of our vacation was much, much better. 🙂

  2. Angela, I pray you are still on your way to health! We just returned from Seagrove Beach. We vacationed there last week with family, during a red tide, no less. The warnings were that it wasn't harmful in any way. So we played on the beach, in the ocean, kept windows open and by day 3 most of us felt like we were coming down with a horrible cold and were sooo tired. We were staying in a condo with beach access, so we spent a lot of time there, event at night when we went crabbing in the ocean. Now about 5 days after being home, I feel like I'm recovering from the respiratory flu. Severe congestion and drainage, bad sore throat, dizziness, exceptional fatigue, aches, chest congestion and burning like bronchitis, gastrointestinal cramping, and unusual bowel issues. My husband has had all this too but much less severe. I went to the doctor two days ago, and she called in an antibiotic which I hope will help. We had a wonderful time together with family on vacation, but it wasn't worth us all getting really sick from it. What types of treatment were helpful for you in your recovery? I tried all sorts of things to ward off what seemed like a cold; no wonder nothing worked! I would love to know what helped you feel better. Wishing you health and blessings!

  3. Oh, Heather. I am so sorry. I'm with you, it totally isn't worth it. From now on, we will only go to the beach during times when red tide isn't on the radar screen. Anyway, about recovery. It took awhile. Red tide is a toxin, not a bacteria, so the only way the antibiotic is likely to help is if you are dealing with a secondary infection brought on by a depleted immune system from fighting the red tide toxins. It is entirely possible for that scenario to happen, so the antibiotic might help. As far as the toxin itself goes, your body wants that stuff out of there. Your body will naturally detox over time without much help, but there are some things you can do if you want to speed up the process (I sure did). One thing to understand is that your liver is a major detoxing organ. So are your kidneys. We want to help them do their job, and we don't want to add to their burden while you are recovering. With that in mind, here is my short list for recovering from a massive toxin exposure like Red Tide: Lots and lots of rest (your body needs to focus on recovery. It can do that far better when it doesn't have to simultaneously fuel a lot of activity. REST!), copious amounts of water (Your body needs water to function, but it also needs to be able to flush the toxins through the kidneys), lots of green vegetables (greens help detoxify your system and are wonderful for detoxifying the liver — I drank lots of green smoothies in addition to a wholesome diet. I have a recipe for green smoothies here on the blog. Just search for "how to eat 5 cups of kale in one sitting"), cut back on things like sugar and white flour for a little bit to give your body a chance to catch up, take some whole food multi-vitamins to help replenish your body (just follow the directions on the bottle). One other kind of weird thing that I did: Activated Charcoal. Activated Charcoal is still used in hospitals to – you guessed it – remove toxins. In cases of overdose, or toxin exposure, it is still the weapon of choice. It binds the toxins and helps flush them out of your system. There are some caveats to using activated charcoal, though — you want to make sure you are drinking PLENTY of water. Charcoal will dehydrate you in about a millisecond. And (besides all the other problems that go with dehydration), dehydration makes you constipated. You are trying to remove toxins. You don't want them getting stuck in transit and reabsorb back into the body. You want them moving on through. How I did it: I only used activated charcoal for 2 days. It isn't a long term treatment. On the days that I used it, first thing in the morning, I drank a 16 oz glass of water. Waited 30 minutes or so. Drank another 16 oz glass of water. Took 6-8 capsules of activated charcoal (make sure it's activated. I'm not talking about cooking charcoal here). Drank another big glass of water. I did the same thing again in the evening before bed. I made sure I was drinking lots and lots of water throughout the day. Activated charcoal also interferes with nutrient absorbtion, so you want to do this 3-4 hours before or after meals or medications. My method isn't nearly as aggressive as the charcoal treatment in the hospital, but it did seem to be a gentle way to help my body "catch up" on the toxin removal. It still took about a month or so before I felt like I could take a deep breath without coughing and felt like I was starting to get my energy back, but I could tell I was much better than before and that I was pulling out. I hope that helps you feel better.

  4. I know of what you speak and it can be even worse. Around Thanksgiving we were in the midst of a red tide, which meant nothing to me I was a newbie and Thot who cares I'm not swimming (but we live a BLOCK from the beach). My sinus issues turned into flu symptoms, then straight into pneumonia, the sickest I've been in over ten years. I almost died and had to be hospitalized. It was only in retrospect (as your life flashes before your eyes) I put the two together. I mean, it's not every day a grown, healthy, non smoking adult suddenly gets stricken down with a two month debilitating illness for no reason.

  5. Wow, Rach. I am so sorry to hear what happened to you. This is why I want to get the word out. We are led to believe Red Tide is harmless to humans, when in reality, it can cause major health issues. Thank you for sharing your story.

  6. I was in Englewood(Manasota Key) for 7 weeks, February and March, 2016. The Red Tide was present and I immediately began to cough and have sinus symptoms, severe headaches and pressure. Our villa was just steps away from the Gulf. If I stayed inside the air conditioned villa I would feel better. I would go back outside and to the beach thinking I was better, and all the symptoms would come back. I eventually went to the doctor there who diagnosed me with sinus infection, bronchitis,and a respiratory thing that he said was going around. He would not talk about the Red Tide algae. The antibiotics and steroids did not make these symptoms go away. I continued to get worse and had side effects from the medication. My mouth was burning like it was on fire. We decided to come home after being there almost 8 weeks. I went to my doctor here who said I had sinus problems and she put me on more steroids. My burning mouth was worse, and she said that I had an yeast infection in my mouth. I was put on Nystatin for that. A week later I was not better. I had flu lke symptoms, nausea, fatigue, and weak. The doctor took me off all medication to see if this was just side effects. It is now 10 days later, and I am not better. I had a CT scan of my facial sinuses and bloodwork done. The CT scan showed a polyp in my sinuses. What is causing all of my other symptoms??? I am sure not the polyp. I have read a lot about the toxic red tide algae and glad that you posted what you have. My doctor is doing more tests here in Michigan to pursue this. I have never been sick for 9 weeks, let alone all of these symptoms. I feel like my body has been poisoned. I get waves of heat coming over me also which feels like my blood is boiling. I just want answers and to get the helpp to feel better. A vacation in Florida feels like a sentence for ????? to feeling really bad.

  7. Wow. I am so sorry you are going through all of this. Your story is why I wrote this post. I wanted people to know Red Tide sickness is real and that you are dealing with a toxin (as opposed to a virus or bacteria). As your immune system depletes, you will be more susceptible to other things, of course, but at the root is a toxin — a poison. It took me several months to completely recover, and I wasn't dealing with lots of meds. I had to rest a lot, drink lots of water, eat very nourishing food and one other weird thing. I took some activated charcoal. I tell how I did that further up in the comments, if you decide you want to try that. For the record, it didn't hit everyone in my family as hard as it hit me. We were ALL sick at the beach, but most of my family recovered quickly after we left. One of my kids and I had a much harder time getting back on our feet. I think Red Tide affects some people more than others.

    Now, we will only go to the beach in the summer from June through the first week of August. We don't go near the gulf anytime Red Tide has a chance of being there.

    I hope you start to feel better soon.

  8. Thank you for replying so quickly. I was wondering what kind of diagnostic tests you may have had. Were you ever diagnosed or did you figure it out like I am doing?? I am having a chest x-ray and more comprehensive blood work and cultures on Monday. My doctor also ordered a brain CT scan. Did someone suggest that you do the detox with the charcoal? I am considering that after the blood work is done. I sent your site to my doctor and she is very receptive to listening to me. When we first arrived on Manasota Key my husband thought he caught a cold. He did seem to get over it quickly, but still has a cough. I suspect that this also is from the red tide. He, however, has not had all these other terrible symptoms that you and I have had. I did find a study that was done in the Englewood Fl area a few years ago. The incidence of sinus infection, bronchitis, pheumonia, and other symptoms went up over 30% at the ER there during thee red tide. This study was done by a research scientist. Do you know of any other recent studies done? I read the one you mentioned here. I have a sense of relief now that I believe I have an answer to my illness. Knowledge is power. Red Tide is very dangerous. It has been downplayed way too much because of money. Tourism on the Gulf is their bread and butter.

  9. Diane, I didn't actually have any tests done. I did a lot of research and found out that virtually no one had a doctor that would take red tide seriously unless you were an asthmatic at a coast doctor's office. Even then, they just worked to manage the symptoms, not to detox the toxin. I have worked with natural methods before, and also knew that hospitals still use charcoal to remove poisons. I did a lot of research before I tried it, but finally settled on a milder charcoal detox, rest, good nutrition and time. If I my red tide exposure had led to a bacterial infection, I would have gone to the doctor to treat that, but I didn't think I could find one that would help me deal with the poison. I knew my body would eventually be able to remove it, but that it would take time, so I decided to help it do it's job as much as I could. If you decide to use charcoal, please read how I did it, because it can be very dehydrating and can cause problems if not done safely. You don't need that on top of red tide.

    I haven't done any more research since this post. It was unbelievably difficult to find even the studies I have referenced here. Tourism dollars are too valuable, I guess, to allow for much research on red tide. What I found was so hard to come by, that I wanted to make it a little easier for people who encountered this to be able to at least find out something about their symptoms. If you are able to get help from your doctor, please come back and tell us. Your comments will help the next person who finds this post while looking for answers. Perhaps your experience will help them work with their doctor to get relief.

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